KNOXVILLE – Every spring there is a player or two that jumps up the depth chart seemingly out of nowhere.
Perhaps it’s a walk-on, a rising senior with little game experience or a player who has battled injuries throughout his career.
Left tackle Jacob Gilliam meets all that criteria. And, at least during the open portion of the last few Tennessee practices, he’s been getting a majority of the work as the team’s starting left tackle.
“I’ve kind of said that nothing really matters until August, but it’s great to get this opportunity,” said Gilliam a rising redshirt senior and a native of Knoxville. “I’m going to hopefully keep this job through the fall.”
It won’t be easy. But it won’t be impossible, either. Not with Tennessee’s situation at offensive line. All five starters must be replaced and the least returning experience is at the tackle position, where Ja’Wuan James and Tiny Richardson, both set to compete at UT’s Pro Day on Wednesday, have manned those spots for the past few years.
It’s been a long waiting and training process for Gilliam, who has battled various injuries throughout his career. He started working on the scout team, got in the two deep last season and now he’s getting a chance to prove he can play at the highest level of college football.
“You know those coaches ever since I got here, they’ve been big on they don’t care who you are they are just going to give you an opportunity,” he said. “And last year I got the chance to be second team and travel and this year I’ve gotten the chance to get first-team reps and I’m trying to make the most of it.
“For me, this has really been building over the past four years and I’m really just trying to reap the benefits right now.”
Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, who started the spring as the starter, came to Knoxville highly-ranked and as the presumptive starter on the blind side. With four inches of height advantage and nearly 20 pounds more weight, Blair certainly looks to have the physical edge. But those won’t be the only deciding factors.
Knowledge of the offense and technique are crucial, and Gilliam, despite the competition, says he’s trying to help Blair along in those areas.
“I’ve been here for four years,” he said. “I’m trying to bring [Blair] along as fast as possible and generate more competition. I’m trying to bring him up on the offense and some of his technique stuff. He’s pushing me. I’m definitely pushing him. It’s definitely been good.”
That competition is what head coach Butch Jones would like to see more of. He knows the Vols will likely be featuring either a walk-on or a newcomer at left tackle – one of the most important spots on the field. That’s just the reality of UT’s situation and he’s looking to make the best of it.
“Obviously we’d like to have more competition across the board,” Jones said. “We’re extremely thin up front … I have [started walk-ons] in a couple big games. [Offensive line coach] Don Mahoney does a tremendous job with our offensive front. It’s all five of those individuals playing together collectively as one unit.”
• Out: WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles, DT Jason Carr
• Limited: CB Justin Coleman, WR Marquez North
• Jones started out practice by firing up the defense. Wearing the white practice uniforms, Jones told the defense it was because they are “soft as a marshmallow.”
• The team did a 3-on-3 drill where two offense linemen took on two D-linemen with a running back and a linebacker behind each respective side. Alden Hill had perhaps the best run of the drill when he squeezed through the pile and escaped for a clear victory. It was a physical drill, evidenced by the fact that two linemen – Allan Carson and Austin Sanders – both limped away from it.
• The defense had the upper hand in one-on-one battles between receivers and defensive backs. Devaun Swafford, who has seen reps as a first-team safety in spring practice, intercepted a pass intended for Alex Ellis and, though he stepped out of bounds, he still ran it the length of the field and celebrated a defensive touchdown. Emmanuel Moseley had great coverage on receiver Josh Smith on another rep. Jason Croom had the best rep for the offense, clearly beating safety LaDarrell McNeil to the inside for an easy touchdown.
• Freshman running back Jalen Hurd, already wearing a heavy brace on his shoulder, has added a large pad to his left elbow. He continues to practice at full speed, but clearly is being bothered by some minor issues.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga