KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Sunday during a 38-7 victory over Utah State.
Gilliam, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on from Knoxville, had been placed on scholarship after spring practice and had opened the year as Tennessee's starting left tackle. His injury creates more adversity for an offensive line that already was replacing all of last year's starters, including Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James.
"I feel for him," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said at his Tuesday news conference. "I feel for his family. Here's a young man, I love him to death, a walk-on who earned a scholarship. He earned it. It's very, very unfortunate, but that's football."
Jones said junior-college transfer Dontavius Blair, redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick and freshman Coleman Thomas would compete for the open spot this week as Tennessee (1-0) prepares for Saturday's game with Arkansas State (1-0). Kendrick stepped in at left tackle after Gilliam got hurt against Utah State, but Jones said Tuesday that none of the three candidates had an edge over the others.
Gilliam had become one of Tennessee's brightest preseason stories as the former walk-on who had cracked the starting lineup of his hometown school. Gilliam, who had appeared in only three career games before this season, replaced Blair as Tennessee's first-team left tackle late in spring practice and remained with the first-team offense throughout training camp.
"I want to thank everyone for the thoughts and prayers," Gilliam tweeted Tuesday. "I will make it through this."
The severity of Gilliam's injury caught his teammates by surprise.
"We definitely were taken aback," junior guard Marcus Jackson said. "He was on the field, walking around, saying he's fine, so it's kind of a shock."
Jones said the Vols are "still in the investigative stages" of determining whether to seek a sixth year of eligibility for Gilliam.
"He's a little upset, which is expected, but he's keeping his head high," junior center Mack Crowder. "He's going to be right there with us every step of the way coaching these guys up and just being there to support us because he still is part of the offensive line."
Tennessee already was searching to find the right combination of the offensive line as it replaced five starters who combined for 177 career starts. Last year's Tennessee offensive line included three players currently on NFL active rosters: James, Kansas City Chiefs guard Zach Fulton and Atlanta Falcons center James Stone. A fourth member of that line, Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, is on injured reserve with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vols allowed two sacks to Utah State with a line that included Thomas, Jackson, Crowder, Jashon Robertson at right guard and Kyler Kerbyson at right tackle. Although Tennessee gained 383 yards and posted an easy victory, the Vols gained just 110 yards rushing on 39 carries.
Now the Vols must mix and match on the line again.
"It's a concern from an overall depth standpoint," Jones said. "That's where your concern comes from. We've repped a number of individuals all training camp. We've had a plan in place. You always have contingency plans as coaches. The great thing is Kendrick, Coleman Thomas, Blair, they've all garnered first-team repetitions, so in terms of teaching it or learning it, they've had as many reps as Jacob has had."
NOTES: Punter Matt Darr also was shaken up during the Utah State game and wasn't on the field for the portions of Tuesday's practice that were open to the media. Jones said that Darr "rolled his ankle." ... Jones said Tennessee's kicking competition is still going on. Freshman Aaron Medley made a 36-yard field goal and missed a 41-yarder against Utah State. Medley had been competing with sophomore George Bullock throughout training camp. "Whoever has the most productivity in practice will be our kicker week in and week out," Jones said.