Student of the game

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If the quality of the student reflects the quality of his teachers, Tennessee has a keeper in its new running backs coach. Robert Gillespie has served apprenticeships under a virtual "who's who" of offensive masterminds.

He played running back for Steve Spurrier at Florida, then coached for him at South Carolina (2006-08). Next he served under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State (2009-10). Then came a stint with Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia (2011-12).

"I've associated myself with some really good programs and some really good coaches," Gillespie said during Friday's pre-spring practice news conference, adding: "That's one of the things" that has made him such a successful recruiter.

Gillespie believes selling Butch Jones and Tennessee will be just as easy as selling Spurrier, Gundy and Holgorsen was at his previous stops.

"Obviously, a place like Tennessee sells itself with the history and traditions," he said. "Being able to come and work for a coach like Coach Jones enables me to go into homes and sell parents and sell kids that they're going to be able to become a man under Coach Butch Jones' watch.

"I'm going to be able to sit down with a defensive player and tell him about the moral standards that our defensive coaches have. I'll be able to tell a quarterback about Coach Jake (offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian). What I really sell to kids is the people I'm able to work with in the programs I've been associated with."

Gillespie must be quite a salesman, based on the information Jones gathered while looking to replace Jay Graham, who abruptly left the Vol staff for Florida State two weeks ago.

"I made sure I called a lot of high school coaches," Jones recalled. "I said, 'Who is the best recruiter that comes into your school?' I kept hearing Robert Gillespie, Robert Gillespie. Then they would tell me all of the characteristics he has that we're looking for."

Those characteristics suggest Gillespie is a quality individual, as well as a good football coach.

Gillespie ran for 1,854 yards during his time as a running back in the Southeastern Conference.
(Getty Images)
"I had a checklist," Jones said. "We interviewed a lot of candidates but he was by far the best candidate. He fit the profile we were looking for. I want a good person, a person who has great character. That's Robert. I wanted a great family man. That's Robert. I wanted an individual who's a great teacher. There's a difference between a teacher and a presenter, and I wanted a great teacher. That's Robert. I wanted an individual who could recruit, that really understands the dynamics of the SEC.

"I wanted somebody that had a passion and an excitement to be here. I just wanted the best football coach, the best fit for the staff. I'm excited to add him to the staff."

Gillespie is no stranger to Neyland Stadium. He visited as a Florida Gator in 1998 and 2000. The '98 visit saw him make a nice run to Tennessee's two-yard line, then give way to a senior who fumbled on the very next play. The Vols recovered, won the game in overtime, then went on to finish 13-0 and claim the national title.

"You never know where life's going to take you," Gillespie said, "but I've always respected Tennessee. I played some of my most competitive moments against this university. To get the opportunity to come here and coach is definitely amazing."

Gillespie was a versatile back at Florida, so it's no surprise that he values versatility in the players he coaches.

"Obviously, you want variety," he said. "You want different kinds of running backs that can do different things, especially in an offense like this where multiple skill sets are involved. The base fundamental is that you want guys that can protect the two most important things on the field. You want to be able to protect the quarterback and protect the football. You have to take pride in being a ball-carrier and protecting the quarterback.

"The next thing is, guys have to be tough football players because we're going to ask them to do things that are tough. You have to block guys that are bigger than you. You have to protect the football when everybody on the defense wants the ball from you. You've got to have a passion for playing football."

Tennessee returns two players who shared the running back duties in 2011 — senior Rajion Neal (708 yards) and junior Marlin Lane (658 yards). Gillespie is withholding comment until he sees them in full-speed action.

"Once we get out on the field I'll learn some things about them but I won't truly learn everything I need to know until we put the pads on," he said. "You learn what your running back is when he puts the pads on: Does he understand how to get the tough yards? How does he protect the ball in traffic? I'm excited for practice tomorrow (Saturday) but I'm really excited for Days 3, 4 and 5 when the pads go on."

Coaching at Big East rival West Virginia the past two seasons, Gillespie developed a deep respect for Butch Jones' Cincinnati Bearcats program.

"They play with maximum effort," Gillespie recalled. "At times they did a lot with a little. The exciting thing is that here we have more to work with. If we can get these kids to understand the standard we want them to play at — the Tennessee standard — and play that way with these kinds of athletes, then we can win a championship here. That's the exciting part."

See what Gillespie and fellow assistants Bajakian and John Jancek said at the pre-spring press conference in the IT video below:

Vol players Ja'Wuan James, A.J. Johnson and Justin Worley address questions in this footage:

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