Vol fans already know the basics: Growing up as a Big Orange fan in Knoxville, he walked on four years ago when he wasn’t offered a scholarship. After a redshirt year and three more as a little-used reserve, he fought his way into the first-team left tackle role last August only to tear an ACL midway through the opener. Undeterred, he basically learned to play on one leg.
“About an hour after I learned I had torn my ACL I decided I was not going to give up and I wasn’t going to let this season go,” he recalled prior to Monday’s TaxSlayer Bowl practice at Hodges Stadium. “I decided that this was my time – that’s what I was being told – so I went for it, and it worked out well for me.”
Beating incredible odds, Gilliam returned to the starting lineup 55 days after tearing the ACL — his only concession being a move from left tackle to right, where he started the final five regular-season games.
The reward: A chance to make one more treasured memory for himself and provide one more throat-knotting inspiration for Vol Nation. Does he appreciate the opportunity? You bet.
“It’s obviously a big deal to me,” Gilliam said. “I was part of a team that went to a bowl game (Music City) my redshirt year.”
True. But this time he’ll be playing – starting, in fact. And this time he’ll be reminding the world what the term “indomitable will” really means.
“This time’s a little different,” he conceded. “I’m actually getting to play, and start. Especially after all I’ve been through this year, it’s a really big deal. It means a lot to be out here and practice with my buddies.”
As important as the bowl game is to him, Gilliam thinks it may be even more meaningful for Tennessee football.
“It’s a big moment for our program, to be out here playing in a bowl game,” he said. “For so many years we didn’t get that chance. It’s great for all of these young guys – we’ve got a lot of ‘em – to be out here practicing. And it’s good for me; I get one last chance to play some ball.”
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones says Jacksonville’s heat and humidity will be a key factor in Friday’s bowl matchup with Iowa. Gilliam is not concerned in the least.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s just like an August day in Knoxville.”
Hey, when you’re playing through a torn ACL, what’s a little humidity?
(Editor's note: Unconfirmed reports suggest that Gilliam suffered an injury following the media portion of Monday's workout that may affect his status for the bowl game. UT's official practice report made no mention of such an injury but we are continuing to follow this situation.)
TAXSLAYER TARGETED UT
Given how openly the Liberty Bowl courted Tennessee throughout November, most observers were shocked when the TaxSlayer Bowl scooped up the Big Orange. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been. The TaxSlayer folks apparently had their eye on Tennessee all along.
One veteran sports writer from the North Florida area told InsideTennessee that TaxSlayer officials assured him a month before bowl bids went out that they were targeting the Vols. Tennessee was the preferred option, even over two teams who beat the Vols (Georgia, Florida) and a team that had yet to face the Vols (South Carolina).
HODGES PASSES MUSTER
Before meeting the media prior to Monday’s practice Tennessee coach Butch Jones took a deliberate walk around the Hodges Stadium Field on the University of North Florida campus.
“I want to check out the field,” he explained as he strode past a dozen reporters.
It turns out that Jones’ interest in the field conditions was well founded. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were assigned Hodges Stadium as their practice facility prior to last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl but head coach Bo Pelini found the field so soft and sloppy following week-long rains that he refused to practice there. Pelini wound up moving his team across town to a field with artificial turf.
After a detailed inspection on Monday, however, Jones pronounced the facility good to go.
“Tremendous,” he said. “I just walked the fields, and they’re in great, great shape. They’re great practice facilities. Hats off to the grounds crew.”
THE HAY IS IN THE BARN
As farmers like to say, “The hay is in the barn.”
Tennessee’s football team practiced Monday and has another workout scheduled Tuesday but these are mere polishing sessions. The Vols completed the bulk of their preparation for TaxSlayer Bowl back in Knoxville prior to the Christmas break.
“It’s fine-tuning the game plan,” Jones said. “Most of the work was done back in Knoxville. Coming down here now it (emphasis) is fine-tuning, becoming a better football team.”
Most of the bowl games played to date were decided by bad plays from the loser more so than big plays from the winner. One team typically doomed itself with costly penalties, slipshod tackling and/or poor special-teams coverage. Jones is determined that such a fate won’t befall his team.
“It’s all execution,” he said. “We did a theme of all of the bowl season so far, and it’s been marred with missed tackles, big plays, explosive plays. And special teams are at a premium.”
Basically, the month leading up to the TaxSlayer Bowl has been treated like the month leading up to a season opener.
As Jones put it: “You almost have to have a first-game approach where (you focus on) anything and everything.”
Click the InsideTennessee logo below to be taken to Monday's practice notes in premium message board VolChat: