Earning a name at all was his first test once he showed up on campus.
“My first strength coach when I got here – you know there are a lot of us walk-ons – and he pretty much just told us he refused to learn our names until late because he didn’t think we’d all make it,” said Gilliam, a local product out of Farragut High School. “The first couple days he tried to kill us. We ran 18 110s the first day, we ran up Gate 10 the next day and then we ran Locust Street the next day.
“After that, some guys started weeding out and he came to me after I’d been through all that, we’d lost like eight guys, and he said, ‘Well now I have to learn your name, you’re the only one left.’”
And while he’s not the only one left on Tennessee’s offensive line, he has been a remarkable story of perseverance. From literally having no name when he first arrived to getting most of the first-team reps at left tackle this fall, Gilliam has seen it all at Tennessee.
“It’s been really special, obviously,” he said. “I came here under a different coaching staff and just kind of worked my way up through a few different offensive line coaches and two different head coaches and just reproving yourself that many times has been tough, but I’ve built myself because of it – rebuilt my game, improved some stuff every time with different techniques. It’s been a lot of fun going from the lowest guy out there to the top guy.”
Now entering his fifth year on campus. Gilliam has suffered a torn labral not once, but twice during in career. He’s been buried deep on the depth chart, finally was set for a great chance to play this season after all five starting offensive linemen left the program last year and then he watched Tennessee bring in highly-ranked junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair to presumably take his spot.
But he keeps battling. He also keeps trying to help the team. Despite being entrenched in one of the closest position battles on the roster, he helps Blair, a newcomer, along every day.
“As soon as Blair came in, I knew I had my work cut out for me,” he said. “He’s a great body and he’s really smart too. I ended up being blessed with some good ability, some strength and knowledge and after being here four or five years I’ve figured out how to play this position.
“It’s been real tough all spring, summer and camp – battling him for that job, but, you know, we push each other. We sit right beside each other in meetings and I’m giving him information and he’s telling me things he sees, so it’s been good.”
Butch Jones recognized his contributions over the summer, putting the 6-4, 297-pound redshirt senior on scholarship.
“When you look at Jacob Gilliam, he’s been in this football program a very long time,” Jones said earlier in fall camp. “To be able to reward him with a scholarship because he’s earned it, he comes to work every day, he has great consistency every day and we’re very proud of him.”
Being one of just a handful of players on the roster to experience a bowl game, Gilliam would love to leave another postseason appearance as part of his legacy as he prepares for his final season.
“My first year I came in here, we went to a bowl game and I really feel like, to really finish it out and make my mark here, would be to get us back to a bowl game,” he said. “That’s kind of my focus this year, getting us back to that, win six-plus games and beating some of our rivals.
“It’s about time we beat Florida and some of those other guys, so I think it’s time to get them.”