It’s the position that lacks the most depth for Tennessee. It’s where players have been banged-up since the summer. What seemed like an unlikely solution to increase the depth at that position happened last Saturday.
In the fourth quarter of a game going all Ole Miss’ way, number 65 made his way back out onto the field for the first time since sustaining an injury that most thought would end his football career at the University of Tennessee.
The MRI the following day would show otherwise. Instead, it would reveal that Gilliam had torn his ACL—an injury that typically requires surgery and rehab that is season-ending.
“I was down for about an hour,” Gilliam said. “Then my family kinda showed up. We started praying, everyone at my church started praying and I’ve had hundreds of people shout me out on Twitter and say they were praying for me. I felt that led to some healing.”
While Gilliam continued to battle his way back to being game ready, his teammates on the offensive line were struggling against SEC defenses.
“Seeing them play when I couldn’t play…I felt bad.”
Coach Butch Jones said he knew the former walk-on was going to try to return as soon as he saw him laying on the Shields-Watkins Field in pain. No matter the injury, Jones knows what kind of warrior the fifth-year senior is and expected Gilliam to make an attempt at a comeback.
"He’s earned everything that he’s received,” Jones told InsideTennesse. "He just comes to work everyday and never complains. He’s just appreciative for every opportunity.”
Gilliam began to work on his rehabilitation as soon as he could to make sure the play that took him out of Tennessee’s win over the Aggies was not the last snap he would ever play. Last Saturday, against the odds, Gilliam was back on the offensive front. In the process, not only did he earn the respect of his teammates but many call him an inspiration.
“I would do anything for that man,” sophomore defensive tackle Danny O’Brien said. “I mean he’s playing on a torn ACL. That’s pretty insane. It takes a lot of heart to do that.”
Another teammate impressed by Gilliam is Mack Crowder. The junior center pointed out what it could mean to the many freshmen and sophomores that make up Team 118.
“Some of the younger guys, need to know it’s a great opportunity to play here at Tennessee,” Crowder said. “You got guys who love the game like Jacob Gilliam. Just seeing him give his all every day. It’s motivation for sure for those guys.”
"I mean he’s playing on a torn ACL. That’s pretty insane. It takes a lot of heart to do that." —Danny O'Brien on Jacob Gilliam
Gilliam was almost taken back by some of the things his teammates have said about him.
“There’s a lot of guys on this team that I look up to just because of the player they are and the guy there are,” he said. “To have some of them say I was an inspiration to them, was really moving for me.”
While some ACL tears are possible to play through, they can still be painful and can cause even worse injuries in the future. Defensive back Brian Randolph is all too familiar with the pain that can be associated with a torn ACL.
“I couldn’t even walk on mine," Randolph told IT. "I don’t know how he’s doing it. He’s probably in a lot of pain. Just straightening mine, used to hurt me. That’s a tough dude.”
In a lot of pain or not, his teammates say it’s hard to tell there was even an injury.
“He doesn’t look like he has a torn ACL out there, I’ll tell you that.” O’Brien said. "He looks just as he did when he was in camp.”
Crowder finds it odd he has any kind of injury and even said, “He definitely doesn’t play like it.”
With those kind of statements, it sounds like Jones will have at least one other option for the O-line.
“It’s an illustration that we’ll use for many years to come,” Jones said. "Here he is he thinks he’s finished his career at Tennessee and he’s willed himself back on the field. I think that’s a tribute to him and his competitive character.”
What Gilliam is doing is an inspiration. One that comes straight from the mantra “I will give my all for Tennessee today.” When InsideTennesse asked him what it felt like when he took the field against Ole Miss, the senior was very straightforward.
“A couple nerves,” he said. “But I really felt like a dog that gets to eat again.”
Gilliam details journey back