Walk-on starting at blindside?

InsideTennessee.com has you covered this spring. Stay with us, and you'll find all the best Tennessee football coverage. Below is a notebook packed with the latest news.

Jacob Gilliam– then a senior offensive lineman at Farragut High School – was playing in the annual Border Bowl between prospects from Tennessee and Kentucky when his phone rang.

It was a call he'd been longing for.

He had sent Tennessee some game film, and Lane Kiffin's staff apparently liked what they saw.

A self-proclaimed die-hard Vols fan since he was 7 years old, Gilliam scheduled a "dream" official visit with his hometown team.

But the actual visit was far from a fantasy.

When he arrived, Kiffin was setting up his new office nearly 2,000 miles away in Southern California. There wasn't a single coach on campus.

Instead of energetic coaches, wide-eyed assistants and hostesses shadowing his every move, administrators and graduate assistants walked him around the facilities and stadium.

"I figured I may as well still give it a shot," Gilliam told InsideTennessee. "Just go for it."

Gilliam decided to walk onto Derek Dooley's team, turning down a few offers to play at smaller programs.

Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney is certainly glad he did.

Gilliam, now a 6-foot-4, 290-pound redshirt senior, has been working recently as Tennessee's starting left tackle.

Tennessee must replace all its starters along the offensive front, so new faces were certainly expected to make an impact.

But even then, Gilliam's name was rarely mentioned in projected depth charts and starting line ups.

Yes, his emergence as a serious contender to protect the quarterback's blindside this fall has surprised just about everyone – aside from Gilliam, that is.

"For me, this had been building over the past four years and I'm just trying to reap the benefits now," he said. "…I've been working my butt off."

At the end of last season – a year where Gilliam saw his only snaps in the waning minutes against Missouri and Alabama – Mahoney approached him with a message.

"We're going to need you to help us win some ball games next year," he said. "We're courting on you."

So far, so good.

Several Tennessee coaches have praised Gilliam for being a model of consistency this spring.

But even that's not good enough.

The Knoxville-native said his goal during the home-stretch of spring camp is to raise his level of play.

"Pass sets, run blocks, whatever we have going on I'm trying to master each thing to where I can be the best tackle I can be," Gilliam said. "I try to come to work every day with as much aggression as I can."

<A HREF=//florida.scout.com/a.z?s=168&p=8&c=1&nid=7550520><A HREF=//florida.scout.com/a.z?s=168&p=8&c=1&nid=7550518><A HREF=//florida.scout.com/a.z?s=168&p=8&c=1&nid=7550508>%%MATCH_1%%</A></A></A>
Gilliam said he started getting first-team reps after Tennessee's first spring scrimmage.

During that game, Dontavius Blair – a JUCO transfer and heralded recruit – held the job.

Gilliam knows his starting spot is far from set in stone, citing Blair's athleticism and length as proof.

"I'm trying to bring (Blair) along as fast as possible. You know, generate some more competition," Gilliam said. "You know, just coaching him up."

It's certainly a role reversal.

He remembers being the student like it was just yesterday.

Gilliam recalls trying to learn from the likes of Ju'Wuan James, James Stone and Zach Fulton – all of whom will likely be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft.

"Even though they're the same age as me, they're superior athletes," Gilliam said. "I tried to learn as much as I could."

Gilliam is the teacher now, the starter now.

But he knows he can't relax.

He said it himself: "Nothing matters until the final lineup is out in August."

"You have to beat out someone they've invested a lot of time and money into. I know in a moments notice, I can be replaced," Gilliam told IT. "I'm trying to make the most of this opportunity."

Williams working

Early enrollee defensive tackle Owen Williams has been praised for his strength by many this spring, but also has been knocked for needing to become better conditioned.

After practice Tuesday, Williams stayed in the indoor facility in full pads and ran several 100-yard sprints.

Drop off from defense

Tennessee took the practice field Tuesday with a noticeable change.

The offense — normally in white jerseys — wore orange.

The defense — normally in orange jerseys — wore white.

But no more than three minutes had passed before Jones revealed why.

"Defense, you look good in white," he hollered into his microphone. "You look like a bunch of marshmallows. You're all soft like marshmallows."

Jones has voiced his displeasure with the defense's physicality most of spring. He grew even more displeased after what he called a "poor" effort during the second scrimmage.

"We're no where close to being a physical defense," Jones told IT.

Saying the defense still has "a long, long way to go," Jones added that he's starting to see some progress. Jones said at the beginning of spring he'd see a considerable drop off in effort at the end of practice, but his young roster is starting to handle the physical workload.

"We're starting to see improvements. Not enough, but some," Jones said. "They're starting to play physical the entire practice, and we've demanded a lot from them."

Insider Report

Jacob Gilliam video interview

Cam Sutton video interview

To see video of the Volunteers at work for the ninth practice of the spring, click play on the InsideTennessee footage below:

Fightin Gators Top Stories