The Vol offense enters week two of the season in search of a new left tackle. In tough news around one of this Tennessee team's and college football's "feel-good" stories, redshirt-senior left tackle Jacob Gilliam has been lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Head coach Butch Jones announced the news Tuesday at his weekly press conference as the Vols prepare for Saturday's game with Arkansas State (Noon kickoff, SEC Network).
Jones said it was a blow for his team and was tough news for the senior who clearly had earned his coach's respect --- as well as a full scholarship in May after spending his first four years at Tennessee as a walk-on.
"He will be out for the year. He tore his ACL. It's very, very unfortunate. I feel for him," Jones said. "I feel for his family. I love him to death. He's a walk on who earned a scholarship. He earned it. It's very, very unfortunate, but that's football. It's next guy in. It's an opportunity for Brett Kendrick. It's an opportunity for Dontavius Blair, Coleman Thomas. We have been preparing these guys, but I just feel for Jacob because he's earned the respect of his peers. He's worked so hard to get into position to be our starting left tackle."
Jones said that Kendrick, Blair, who didn't play Sunday night, and Thomas will battle for the left tackle position this week. Kendrick replaced Gilliam after he was injured in the third quarter Sunday night.
"He's continued to develop," Jones said of Kendrick. "He's done a good job of it. Now it's for real. He's taking coaching. He's listening to (offensive line coach Don) Mahoney. I'm starting to see a different mentality with them. He's not there yet, but I'm excited to see where he can take this.
"It's a concern from an overall depth standpoint, but the great thing is Brett Kendrick, Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair all have gotten some first-team reps."
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney had done nothing but praise Gilliam since last spring.
"He just kept proving himself over and over," Mahoney said following a Vols' recent practice. "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."
For Gilliam, starting Sunday night was a feat that made him beam with pride.
"When I weighed about 250 it was hard to convince myself that I could play at this level," Gilliam said back in August. "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."
Jones said he wasn't sure if Tennessee would be able to pursue a medical redshirt for Gilliam.
"As of right now, no. We're still in the investigative stages," Jones said of the possible redshirt appeal.
In other injury news, Jones said that punter Matt Darr, who sprained his ankle on his final punt was fine, is expected to practice on Tuesday. Darr punted eight times for a 37.3-yard average, dropped four punts inside the 20-yard line and also boomed a 53-yarder.
Jones indicated the Vols' competition at kicker is ongoing and said Aaron Medley must continue to earn his starting role daily in practices. Coaches are continuing to chart every kick.
Jones also emphasized that the Vols' secondary will be "ever-evolving" as it pertains to the starting safety opposite Brian Randolph. LaDarrell McNeil started the opener against Utah State, but Jones made clear there are several battles in the secondary and all but guaranteed lineup changes over the course of the season.
Jones did praise the pre-season camp of McNeil, the junior safety from Texas who now has 20 career starts. Tennessee still lists Devaun Swafford as the starter opposite Randolph in its weekly game notes and two-deep depth chart.