Redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam has had his doubts. The walk-on turned scholarship player in May wondered if he could play at the SEC level. He wondered if he would ever get a legitimate chance to even try. As he enters his senior year, the Farragut High School product has entered his last season as the starter at left tackle.
"The whole experience you sit behind those scholarship guys and they are going to get more shots than you every single time. I had to reprove myself to three different offensive line coaches and two different head coaches," Gilliam said. "It's just one of things where sit back there wait for your chance, wait for your chance and you might get one of them, a real chance your whole career. You have to make the most of it.
"When I first got here, I ran with the 2s all spring, but unfortunately I had a setback with my shoulder injury. After that, I really didn't get a chance till Coach Mo (Don Mahoney) got here. He kind of told everyone, 'Hey you are all equal to me. Everyone is going to be the same and the best players are going to be in there'. That's kind of when I got my chance again, this past spring."
Gilliam ran with the chance leaving spring as the starter at left tackle. Something he admits was hard to imagine when he arrived at Tennessee.
"When I weighed about 250 it was hard to convince myself that I could play at this level," Gilliam said. "Once I got up with a steady weight of 285, I started seeing myself get more push up front. Now that I'm 298 to 301, somewhere in there, it's gotten a lot easier. Kind of when I started gaining more weight and putting on more muscle mass is when I realized I was going to have a chance."
It's a chance that Gilliam took full command of in the spring thanks to his consistency in his play. With junior college transfer Dontavius Blair struggling to adjust to the system and struggling with his conditioning, Mahoney said it was simple every time he turned the tape on the then walk-on looked the same, a model of consistency.
"He just kept proving himself over and over," Mahoney said. "I felt so good for him and felt so good about the situation because he was proving it. And he did. He quietly went about it and earned the spot. He flat out earned it."
Now keeping it means a daily battle with a better conditioned and more adjusted Blair. A challenge that Gilliam knows means he has to bring his "A" game for everyday.
"I kind of look at it this way. The spring was great and everything. I'm glad I got the starting role coming into camp, but camp is a different animal," Gilliam said. "It changes every single day. One day I'm at left tackle and then I'm at center. Things change all the time depending on what personnel we need. There is definitely pressure from Blair. There's pressure from the two-deep for every starter. I think everyday we have to go into it with the mindset of hey this is my job. I'm going to show coach Mo and this coaching staff why I should be the number one guy."
"Coach Mo outlines exactly what he wants from you everyday. It's work hard, finish and give effort. That's what we all try to do. That's our main goal everyday. In the long run, it sucked to reprove myself because that is always hard. But at the end of the day, it helped to have a new coach in here that was willing to give me a real shot."
With that real shot, the local product finds himself in a position to possibly do what is for most walk-ons is beyond their wildest dreams and that's start a game in Neyland Stadium. For Gilliam, Mahoney said it's about the tackle simply continuing to grind.
"He has to keep being consistent. We have great competition. Hopefully, Dontavius comes along to where he plays well and maybe not only challenges Jacob and they are challenging Coleman (Thomas)," Mahoney said. "I told them guys, don't think it's a right side, left side thing, maybe those two outplay the right side guys. He just needs to keep playing consistent."