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April 2, 2014

Gilliam trying to feast on opportunity

The demands are the same, if not sometimes a bit more humbling. Jacob Gilliam, the University of Tennessee redshirt senior offensive tackle, doesn't mind that.

The hardest part about being a walk-on in a major college program, where Gilliam admittedly knows there's more monetarily invested in his 85 scholarship teammates? Simply breaking bread.

"The toughest thing about being a walk-on? To be real frank, sometimes you don't get to eat with the team. That's a real downer," said the product of nearby Farragut High School. "You want to spend as much time with your teammates as you can, and you know some meals, just the way things work out with the NCAA, you can't eat with them.

"So you just try to make the best of it and go get your food and stuff. That's one of the hardest things, not to be with your teammates when you're all getting together after practice and just eating and being together."

Gilliam gladly is on the outside looking in at his teammates right now this spring --- manning the left flank of the Vols' offensive line as their first-team offensive tackle in each of the team's four practices since returning from spring break.

"I really think it's just the consistency. I just try to come in every day and give as much effort and do anything (offensive line coach Don Mahoney) requires of me," said Gilliam, who's appeared in three games across the first four years of his Tennessee career. "If he wants me to go play center for eight plays, go play center for eight plays. It doesn't matter what he asks me.

"I'm just, as a walk-on, as a player on this team, not even just as a walk-on, I'm just trying to give everything I have for this team and for Coach Mo because I know he's going to lead us and give us the best opportunity to succeed."

Gilliam's peers derive motivation from his approach; from the very transparent difference between being a big-time scholarship recruit and a toil-in-relative-obscurity walk-on.

"Man, Gilliam, he's a great guy and I love him just like I love my other guys in there. It's awesome that he's sticking with it and he's been here a while and he's finally getting a shot," said junior center Mack Crowder, one of only two Vols' offensive linemen on this year's roster with a career start. "You know, it's well deserved. I think he's really making the most of that opportunity."

Particularly, Crowder acknowledges, as a walk-on.

"No, it's not [easy]. You have to look at a guy like that and just really respect him," Crowder said. "Mentally, he's super tough. He comes every day just like we do, but he might not get as pampered as we do. He's one guy that we all can look up to, just knowing that he can come in here and do it every day. So why can't we?"

Gilliam makes no pretense about the difficulties, but he also doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for him. He's been cheering for the Vols since elementary school, and he's got a phalanx of former players among his support system.

"(Former Vol wideout) Terence Cleveland is one of my dad's good friends and he sends me little informational stuff. I talk to him about once a month on the phone. And sometimes when I've been close to not playing anymore, he's helped me kind of push past that," Gilliam explained. "One of my best friend's dad is Jeff McMichael, who played linebacker here. He's always been real encouraging. And the guys I came in with, James (Stone), Zach (Fulton) and Ja'Wuan (James). They did a great job just making sure everybody was on the same level."

Gilliam also finds an open embrace from his current teammates as he battles with Dontavius Blair to be the starting tackle and competes among the unit to at least earn a spot in the rotation.

"I got a lot of encouragement from former players, from my family, from pretty much everybody. Just telling me to keep going, keep at it and I really kind of fed off of that energy. Especially my teammates, man," said Gilliam, after the crowd from his first-ever media gathering as a Vol had dwindled to one. "It's little victories in the weight room. Getting that max-out. Your teammates treating you like one of them. That's one of the things that helped me out a lot, that brotherhood we have between the O-line and other positions. Just you know that no matter what, walk-on, scholarship, starter, you're one of the guys. And they're happy for you when you succeed, and they're on your butt when you mess up."

Gilliam doesn't expect it any other way. Sure, he's about 50 pounds heavier than his initial Tennessee arrival; he's even grown nearly an inch to crowd 6-feet, 5 inches.

"I had some interest from MTSU, Kent State. Some places said I was too small to play. Some people said I would never get big enough to play. It was nice coming here and using what Miss Allison (Maurer) gives us," said Gilliam, weighing 297 after reporting to UT four years ago around 250. "She laughed at me the first time I came in here and told her I played O-line. But I just did what she told me and everything our strength coaches have told me, and I bulked up and have kind of proved everybody wrong that said I wouldn't be big enough."

With head coach Butch Jones declaring he isn't afraid to start a walk-on or a true freshman along his offensive front, Gilliam knows the bigger picture is about the collective group and not his fight for a significant role in his farewell season.

"We're just trying, it's going to take everybody and not just me," Gilliam said. "It's going to take all of us to get together and we're all going to have to power through and just really take this season.

"Nobody's going to give us anything. Nobody's predicting us to do anything, so we're going to have to take what we have, make it work and attack whoever tries to come in here."

After all, NCAA rules might stipulate where Gilliam eats, but they have no bearing on his chances to earn a starting spot.



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