KNOXVILLE - Depending on your perspective, Tennessee offensive lineman Jacob Gilliam is one of two things.
For the last four years, the 6-foot-4, 287-pound Farragut High School graduate was a walk-on who gave hours and days and weeks and months of unappreciated work for the Volunteers.
For the past few practices, Gilliam has been Tennessee's first-team left tackle.
Both of the labels apply to the fifth-year senior, and now he's trying to use the first to make the latter also apply.
"Nothing is guaranteed, ever, especially for a walk-on," Gilliam said after the Vols practiced Tuesday. "Anybody out there that's been a walk-on knows that. You've got to come to work every day no matter how you feel or what it's like, and you've got to outwork somebody that obviously they've invested a lot of time and money into.
"That's what I just try to come with every day, knowing that at a moment's notice I could be replaced."
Unless Dontavius Blair, a touted junior college transfer who joined the Vols in January, picks it up the final two weeks of spring practice, Gilliam's status might stick as the Vols try to find a replacement for the departed Tiny Richardson.
The 6-8, 300-pound Blair, whom Tennessee landed out of Garden City Community College in Kansas, began spring as the first-team left tackle, and it's likely the Vols' staff is rewarding Gilliam for his consistency while also hoping to motivate a player who was a four-star prospect and recruited by the likes of Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida State.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones was riding Blair some in Tuesday's practice for "finally" showing some toughness and notching his first pancake block in a pass-protection drill.
"Just trying to create a sense of urgency," Jones later said. "He understands that time is dwindling down now. Spring ball is coming to a closure, and you're going to have all your habits instilled that's going to carry you through the summer months. Everything that is going on, there's got to be a sense of urgency and a great sense of purpose every day we practice.
"He's going through a phase, which all players do. We've been through it before. You've just got to keep grinding every day."
It's typical for junior college linemen to go through a transitional period, but it's somewhat unusual for a walk-on to make it through all five years of a career, particularly when there's a coaching change involved.
"Really I just try to come to work every day with as much fire, as much aggression as I can, because I always know they're going to try to bring somebody else to fill a spot no matter how many times I earn it," Gilliam said.
"That was really the old coaching staff. With this coaching staff, like I've said, every opportunity they've given me, I've tried to make the most of it, and it's really worked out for me so far."
It takes a different breed of player, particularly when it comes to linemen, to be a walk-on in college football. They're typically smaller than the scholarship linemen playing in front of them, and those players typically have to work harder to maintain conditioning. A spot hardly is ever guaranteed.
Gilliam's work ethic and tenure have earned him respect from teammates.
"It's awesome, and I just think it's really because he came into work every day," center Mack Crowder said. "A lot of guys that come and go, they're not cut out for it. But he is one guy that he's definitely cut out for it, and he's proven it over the years.
"He's came to work every day and been through every practice just like everybody else has, plus more. Gilliam's a special guy. We all really love him in the O-line room."
Jones said he's started walk-ons on the offensive line before, and while starting walk-ons in the Southeastern Conference is far from ideal, the Vols started two -- the Sullins brothers, Cory and Cody -- in 2009, when future NFL second-round pick Montario Hardesty recorded the fourth-best single-season rushing total in Tennessee history.
Gilliam was on the travel roster last season and played in the fourth quarter of blowout losses at Alabama and Missouri and played similar mop-up duty against Kentucky in 2012.
Now he's eyeing much more.
"I've kind of said nothing really matters till August, but it's great to get this opportunity and I'm making the most of it, and I'm just going to hopefully keep this job all the way through the season," Gilliam said.
"Coach Mo [line coach Don Mahoney] has said the whole time that he's going to need all of us. Everybody in that room is going to be needed this year to kind of get us going and help us win some games. He's just really told me, 'The competition's wide open and we'll see what you can do."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.