Gilliam Ready for a New Role

Whether or not he starts, Penn State's comeback kid will be a factor at offensive tackle when the Nittany Lions open the season vs. Syracuse Saturday.

At his Tuesday press conference, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien declined to offer updates on the various position battles still cooking as the Nittany Lions approached Saturday’s season opener with Syracuse at the Meadowlands.

That included the tussle at right offensive tackle, where veteran Adam Gress has been cleared to play after missing training camp time with a leg injury and converted tight end Garry Gilliam has made the transition to the offensive line.

Who will get the nod vs. the Orange?

“That would be one of those things you’ll find out Saturday,” O'Brien said. “But Gress and Garry Gilliam will both play.”

On a media teleconference Wednesday, Gilliam insisted he and his teammates still did not know who was going to start at right tackle -- or any of the other positions (including quarterback) that have been up for grabs.

“Our knowledge is just as much as your knowledge,” Gilliam said from his mobile phone while sitting outside the HUB on campus. “We’ll find out when the game comes. … But everyone who is an either/or (on the depth chart) is capable of performing on the field.”

Whenever Gilliam takes the field Saturday, it will complete a remarkable transformation. Then a tight end, he blew out the ACL in his left knee at Iowa in 2010 and did not play the rest of the year. Complications during rehab from surgery caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, as well.

He was back in action last fall, as a blocking specialist in O'Brien’s new tight end-friendly offense. Despite starting eight games, Gilliam only caught seven passes. By comparison, fellow tight ends Kyle Carter (36 receptions), Matt Lehman (24) and Jesse James (15 and five TDs) were all much more heavily involved in the passing game. All were scheduled to return (and have returned) in 2013, with redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson and star recruit Adam Breneman also set to join the group.

Gilliam, who checked in at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds at the time, started to think about his future in the sport. It is fair to say things were … well … weighing heavily on him.

“For me to stay at 265, 270 -- which is pretty big for a tight end -- I was eating grilled chicken and salad,” he said. “I was pretty much on a diet to (stay at) that weight.”

So in his season-ending meeting with O’Brien, Gilliam told the coach he wanted to move to offensive tackle. The Lions were a bit thin at the position heading into 2013.

Gilliam’s primary argument: “With all of the tight ends we have anyway, why waste a decent blocker?”

And how did O’Brien take that?

“At first I had to convince him,” Gilliam said. “But after I convinced him, he almost made the decision on the spot.”

Instead, O’Brien mulled it over with the rest of his staff. Eventually, they agreed that Gilliam would move to tackle.

He immediately began to pack on pounds.

“I didn’t take any supplements,” he said. “I just ate more food and spent more time in the weight room.”

On the latest PSU roster, he is listed at 303 pounds. And in offseason testing, he graded out as the most athletic (overall) offensive lineman in the program. During the spring semester, when he was up to 297 pounds, he ran a 4.9 40 and 4.53 NFL shuttle. He also had a 32.5-inch vertical and broad jumped 9-3. Gilliam’s 40 was .18 seconds faster than his previous best -- which had been set as a tight end.

“I'm not surprised by his weight gain,” O’Brien said. “He's got a big frame and is a really big guy. And he’s put on good weight; it’s muscle weight. … He's able to move just as well as he did when he was at tight end. That's a testament to him.”

A lower leg injury kept Gilliam out of most contact in the spring. Though he was still in on all the position meetings and did walk-through work on the field, it was a setback in his own eyes and those of the coaching staff.

“Missing the spring, that wasn't the greatest thing in the world for him,” O’Brien said during the summer, adding that Gilliam would have to “hit the ground running” in training camp. Fully healthy when camp opened, Gilliam did just that.

He credits his teammates -- including Gress -- for helping him make rapid progress.

“We have a great relationship,” Gilliam said of Gress. “And competition at any place on the field is going to make both guys better. … Not only did I go to Gress to get information on skill sets, I’d go to anybody who plays the position, including freshmen, sophomores and juniors. I was never too prideful to ask for help, even if it was (from) the defensive guys.”

Though a fifth-year senior, Gilliam is listed as having junior eligibility on the Penn State roster. The school believes he has met the criteria to receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA due to medical hardship.

As difficult as those medical issues were, Gilliam can see the silver lining.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “As the cards are falling into place, it’s kind of paved the way for what I’m doing now.”

What Gilliam is doing now is playing offensive tackle. We won’t know until Saturday whether O’Brien gives him his first career start at the position.

We do, however, know exactly what the head coach thinks about his transplanted tight end.

“The whole thing with Garry is he just needs to stay healthy,” O’Brien said. “If he stays healthy, he’s got a chance to be a good player.”

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