JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This senior class won’t leave Tennessee very decorated. Its record over the past four years isn’t that impressive, and, in fact, will be one of the worst in school history over a four-year span of UT football history at 22-27.
Many transferred, had discipline issues or quit football altogether. They experienced injuries, adversity and about any other calamity that a group of college football players could go through.
But after Tennessee wrapped up an impressive 45-28 victory over Iowa in Friday’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville Fla., to win its fourth game out of the last five and to raise expectations for this talented young team’s future, the small group of seniors got the opportunity to walk out of EverBank Field knowing that they were an important part of the foundation of what is being built at Tennessee.
“Very proud of the seniors,” said Butch Jones. “They can have a say in building Tennessee football back.”
Perhaps no senior represents the sacrifice that the group has gone through better than offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam. A Knoxville native who walked on and waited four seasons to earn a starting job, Gilliam tore his ACL in the season opener, but decided to rehab it instead of opting for reconstructive surgery and returned in the middle of the season.
After reclaiming a starting job, Gilliam held down a spot on the line, but suffered a broken hand in one of the final days of bowl preparation. He said not even a severed arm would’ve kept him out of Friday’s game, however, and the redshirt senior played his final game with only one functioning hand and the other one wrapped so tightly that it couldn’t be used.
“I think our legacy is taking Tennessee where it was when we got here, which was a little downtrodden, a little defeated and putting it back in its right place – among the elite in college football,” Gilliam said. “I definitely just see this as the beginning. Tennessee has plenty of places to go without me.”
A few other seniors showed up in the stats during UT’s offensive breakout performance against the Hawkeyes. Running back Devrin Young returned from a rib injury to carry the ball four times for 25 yards. Senior Marlin Lane, who has battled an ankle issue all year, also had one of his better games, rushing nine times for 21 yards, but more importantly, pulling up on a halfback pass where he hit receiver Vic Wharton for a 49-yard touchdown to give the Vols a commanding 21-0 lead early.
“I just said, ‘dude, I love you,'” freshman running back Jalen Hurd said of his message to Lane after he came off the field for the last time. “Just, this is the beginning of us and it’s the end at the same time. He’s been a great mentor towards me this season and I’m really going to miss him.”
Other contributions from the senior class didn’t show up in the stat sheet as much. Defensive tackle Jordan Williams played admirably Friday, and all season, after bulking up and moving from defensive end to tackle. Matt Darr became a consistent weapon in the punting game and the likes of Justin Coleman, Brendan Downs, Jacob Carter and others had their moments and helped provide depth for this team.
Jones singled out Downs for his hidden effort on the touchdown pass from Lane to Wharton. The call went as expected until an Iowa blitzer threatened to blow it up in the backfield. Downs, a heady fourth-year player, picked up the blitz, giving Lane time to release the ball.
That’s not something that will be remembered from Friday’s win for the Vols. Very little of the senior classes’ effort will. And no doubt it was the efforts of players such as Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Von Pearson and other young players that ultimately sparked Tennessee to a win and gives the Vols hope for the future.
But expect Gilliam, perhaps a little hobbled by his injuries during his time at Tennessee, to keep watching and to take a little extra satisfaction knowing that he helped turn it around and get it going in the right direction.
“I won’t be with them, but they’re going to do a lot of great things and I can’t wait to watch my boys finish it out and play really well,” he said.
Hopefully the Vols don’t forget all he did to help them get there.