KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Every sport has its risk of injury.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, Jacob Gilliam has seen his senior season end following just one game after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Gilliam began his career as a walk-on. Over five years, Gilliam worked relentlessly to prove to coaches his skills as on the offensive line.
After all of the work and the May prior to this season, he fulfilled a career dream. He earned not only a scholarship, but a starting role at left tackle.
"Here is a young man who walked on and earned a scholarship," head coach Butch Jones said. "He earned it. It is very unfortunate, but that is football. ... I love him and I love his family. I love everything that they stand for."
Both senior Marlin Lane and junior Marcus Jackson along with Jones have seen the journey for Gilliam who went from a scout teamer to a starting role on the team.
"He is disappointed," Jones said. "He has put in a lot of hard work, effort and commitment into it. It will serve him year down the road with handling adversity. He will be better from it. Obviously you would expect him to be down after putting so much work into it."
"I've been with him for four years," Jackson added. "It's tough to see that. He did come in here as a walk-on and worked his way up. I'm real proud of him, but everything in life happens for a reason and he'll be a stronger person because of it."
When losing Gilliam on an already young offensive line, Lane sees one important factor that the team will lose.
"He's always smiling and knows his stuff," said Lane. "He fought through adversity since I've been here my freshman year.
"Jacob is a great guy. I love Jacob. I feel sorry for him losing his career, but we have people that practice hard. I'm very confident in whoever takes his spot."
Despite the difficulty of the situation, the team wants Gilliam to remain an influential part on the team.
"Unfortunately things like that happen in football," senior and fellow lineman Mack Crowder said. "He's going to be there with us every step of the way coaching these guys up and just being there to support us because he's still a part of the offensive line."
REEVES-MAYBIN: ALL FOCUS ON ARKANSAS STATE
In his debut at starting linebacker against Utah State on Sunday,Jalen Reeves-Maybin racked up 10 tackles for his first-career double-digit tackle game. Despite the breakout performance, the sophomore still sees room for improvement in his game and among his 11-man defensive unit.
"No, I still don't think I made enough plays," Reeves-Maybin said. "I think I left some plays out there that I could have made so, I was happy but there was a lot of stuff I think I could've done better. We still have a lot of things to improve upon."
Within his linebacker unit, Reeves-Maybin reiterated Head Coach Butch Jones' point from today's press conference, citing the small details as areas where they will continue to improve.
"I think I would have felt a lot better if we would have got that shutout but overall, we played pretty well," he said. "Basically, we're focused on Arkansas State now. That Utah State game is past us so, we're all focused on this one game."
With the Team 118 mindset of one game at a time, Reeves-Maybin also points out that this year's group is compiled of quick-learners, which will be a huge advantage for Tennessee when preparing for another mobile-quarterback style scheme on a short practice week.
"I think we'll be alright," he said regarding Arkansas State's offense. "We already started reviewing them, looking at them yesterday and today, so I think we'll be able to catch back up to speed. Arkansas State does a little bit more quarterback-design runs, whereas with the last quarterback, he was kind of a scramble guy. Overall, we're just trying to keep him in the pocket and when the quarterback runs, we've got to get hits on him."
Now with the `Neyland Nerves' of the season opener are past him, Reeves-Maybin is more energized and eager than ever to not only duplicate his Week One success, but to share in the successes of his on-field family.
"It was great just being on the field with A.J. [Johnson] and Curt [Maggitt]," he added. "It definitely felt good communicating with those guys. All of the work from the summer and the spring carried over to the field. We're just going to put everything we've got into the Arkansas State game and try to come out 2-0."
BARNETT BREAKS DOWN HIS DEBUT
Derek Barnett became the first true freshman defensive lineman to ever start in a season opener for the Vols Sunday night, and the talented freshman admits he had pretty of butterflies in his stomach prior to kickoff.
"I was nervous, but after the first play I was good," he said. "After I engaged, I got those nerves out. It was good."
The talented freshman said he was pleased with his Tennessee debut, but he feels he has lots of room for improvement.
"I played alright. I think I had a few tackles, but I need to get better. In play-action pass, I need to get off my block more and keep running to the ball better.
"I thought I ran to the ball pretty good. Like I said, I need to be more consistent. Every play I need to do that."
Arriving to campus over the summer, Barnett has had very little time to become ready to be thrust into the starting lineup. It was the help of older players, especially sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen, that have brought him up to speed so quickly, he says.
"He knows everything," he said, "so if I have a question, I always ask him. Like in practice, if I see something that I don't really understand, I'll go up to him and ask him.
"He's only a grade above me, but he knows the stuff like he's been here four years. If I prepare like he does, I'll be game-ready."
LANE LAUDS WORLEY'S LEADERSHIP
One of the most talked about leaders that has emerged on Team 118 has been senior quarterback Justin Worley. Running back, and fellow senior, Marlin Lane says Worley's leadership and attitude has provided a boost of confidence for the Volunteer offense.
"I see a lot of confidence in Justin," Lane said. "Justin is that guy that never shows any `down,' no bad attitude," he said. "He's always coming to practice leading with his voice, actions. I like playing for a guy like that. I feel if we protect him in the pocket, he's going to be a great quarterback for us."
He also sees Worley's leadership and willingness to be an on-field coach to the younger players paying off for the Tennessee passing game.
"I feel like Justin has a lot of confidence in the receivers and the young guys out there," Lane added, "because he stays after practice with them, he meets with them, and he talks the game to them.
"I think, by him doing that, they get closer and closer, and he gets more confidence in throwing to the guys on the perimeter. "
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)