Tennessee’s senior offensive tackle tore his left ACL in Game 1 against Utah State, grieved briefly, then set about rehabilitating the injury. He was back at practice within three weeks – jogging and helping coach the other O-linemen. The next week he did a little more and the next week still more. Lately he’s suiting up and going through the offensive line drills.
The 6-foot-4, 297-pound Gilliam (pronounced GILL-um) is convinced he’ll play again this season. It would be unwise to bet against him because this guy makes a habit of beating long odds.
Growing up in Knox County, he was not recruited by the hometown Vols. Undaunted, he swallowed his pride and walked on without a scholarship. Four years of thankless effort earned him just a few snaps of mop-up action, yet he opted for a fifth year in the program. His dedication finally was rewarded when he got a one-year scholarship last May. No one gave him a chance to beat out 6-foot-8, 300-pound junior college All-American Dontavius Blair for the first-team left tackle job but Gilliam beat the odds yet again. Then, midway through his first college start, he suffered an injury that typically ends an athlete’s season.
There’s nothing typical about Jacob Gilliam, however. Just ask his position coach.
"I can't say enough about him,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney told InsideTennessee. “This is a guy who will just not accept the fact that he's been told he may not be able to play again. He's been working as hard as possible, and mentally he's something else. I'm amazed to see him do the things he's done."
Not too amazed, though. Gilliam promised weeks ago that his career was not over.
"He said, `I'm not done. As long as I'm OK to participate, I want to give it a go,’” Mahoney recalled. “Of course, as long as the trainers are OK with it, Coach (Butch) Jones and I will make sure that if he wants to give it a go, he can.”
Even knowing Gilliam’s level of determination and dedication, Mahoney was surprised the first time the injured player showed up at practice and did some jogging. The Vol aide has continued to be surprised as Gilliam’s practice participation has grown.
“He keeps wanting more, wanting more, wanting more,” Mahoney said. “We just keep following the direction of the trainers and he's moving around well. He refuses to sit out."
Tennessee’s offensive coordinator is another coach with a deep and abiding respect for Jacob Gilliam.
“He’s a warrior and a tough guy,” Mike Bajakian said. “He’s done nothing but work his butt off. He’s getting better, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the near future.”
Tennessee coaches aren’t the only people intrigued by Gilliam’s unlikely comeback bid. Tennessee teammates are, as well.
“His peers on this team are looking at him and they're just shaking their heads,” Mahoney said.
Actually, they’re doing a lot more than that. Many of them are inspired by the courage and dedication Gilliam is displaying.
"This is a guy who will just not accept the fact that he's been told he may not be able to play again."
“Definitely,” junior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “I’ve got a great respect for Jacob. He’s not only a good football player; he’s a great person. We’re good friends and I’m proud of him. I’m supporting him 110 percent, no matter what. It’s unique to see him getting back this fast from an ACL, giving all he has.”
Redshirt sophomore safety Brian Randolph echoed those thoughts, noting: “It’s definitely very impressive to me because I tore my ACL (in 2012). I watch him, and it’s amazing that he’s still even walking. I know I’m inspired. He’s out here with a bad knee and I’m blessed to be healthy – no worries and no complaints.”
Whether Gilliam plays again or not, his determination is setting a great example for Tennessee’s younger players … freshman running back Jalen Hurd, for instance.
“Dude’s tough,” Hurd said, shaking his head in awe. “He’s trying to get back out there. He don’t care that his knee’s messed up at all. He’s just trying to get back out there and help his team. That tells me that he’s relentless and he’ll do anything to win.”
No one has a higher regard for the injured Vol than freshman Jashon Robertson, who switched from defensive tackle to offensive guard a week into preseason camp and promptly won a starting job.
“I’m so glad you asked me a question about Jacob Gilliam,” Robertson said. “Jacob Gilliam is a guy I really look up to. A lot of our guys are very close to Jacob. He’s been a tremendous leader. When I came over to offensive line he helped me a lot, as far as calls, schemes and everything.
“When I see Jacob I see a warrior, somebody who represents the state of Tennessee and represents our program. He earned a scholarship in May and came out in his first game and gave everything he had. I have a deep respect for him for that.
“To see him come back from everything that’s happened to him – to see him persevere like that – obviously, it’s just amazing.”
Gilliam at work on Haslam Field
Don Mahoney video interview