KNOXVILLE - At the onset of Tennessee's preseason training camp, Dontavius Blair staking claim to a starting spot at left tackle was a foregone conclusion.
After all, Jacob Gilliam, a former walk-on, was the only one standing in the way of the mammoth junior college transfer.
Through the first week of practice, though, Gilliam remained in control of the first-team spot heading into the Volunteers' first preseason scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
"He's playing so steady," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said of Gilliam following Friday's practice. "He just goes about his work every day. I think [it's] his experience and his technique -- and that's the biggest thing that Dontavius is working to improve, is his overall technique.
"His strength, his conditioning levels have gotten better, but his overall technique's got to improve, and that's something where [Gilliam] has an edge on him. Jacob's really holding it down, and Dontavius is making strides, and it's good and it's healthy. As an overall unit, that's good for us, but Jacob's playing well."
The 6-foot-4, 296-pound Gilliam, a former standout at Farragut High School just outside of Knoxville, took most of the spring-practice first-team repetitions at the tackle spot vacated by Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's early entry into the NFL draft, but at the time it appeared to be more of a motivational play aimed at Blair than anything else.
A four-star recruit coming out of Garden City Community College in Kansas, Blair was courted by Auburn, Florida State, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Southern California and others. And while coaches have said the 6-8, 300-pounder increased his strength and improved his conditioning over the summer months, Gilliam continues to lead one of Tennessee's primary preseason position battles.
"Me and Blair talk all the time," Gilliam said. "He sits right next to me in meetings, so I'm talking to him all the time on some technique. He gives me some pointers on stuff he sees, and the best one will come out on top. That's our mentality."
Mahoney said Blair mostly needs to improve his hand placement and footwork.
"It's mostly hands with him," he said, "and that's something that is a work in progress with every guy, but something in particular for a guy that's as big and long as he is. It tends to get him outside the framework of the body that needs to just be better and quicker and violent. He's working hard at that."
Gilliam, who remembers Tennessee's win against Houston on the way to the 1998 national title being the first game he attended as a kid, showed up as a walk-on in 2010, put in countless hours in a thankless role and finally earned a scholarship this past offseason.
While hanging out at the pool at his house in Farragut, Gilliam received a call from Tennessee coach Butch Jones and admitted he was "pretty shocked" at his reward.
"I think it was a step in the right direction for me," Gilliam said. "My whole thing in the whole time I've been here is it's not been a scholarship's the end role for me. My role has always been here to start and play as best I can. Getting that scholarship was a huge thing, but I feel like it was just a step in my whole journey."
Gilliam's journey may be just three weeks away from reaching its desired destination, but he'll have to hold off a strong challenge from the talented Blair to do it.
"When we first got here, he was hoping for an opportunity," Mahoney said. "When I first met him, he said, 'Coach, just let me have an opportunity.' I said, 'Well, sure.' I looked at the numbers and who all was here, and going through [last] spring and Tiny being out, I said, 'You're going to get plenty of opportunity.'
"Now, instead of hoping, I think he expects it. Now that he knows that he's doing well, and he's more confident, he expect to do well. He's playing with an extremely high confidence level, because he's showing it on film every day."
The Vols concluded preparations for Saturday night's scrimmage with a morning practice in helmets and shoulder pads. Soggy conditions at soggy Haslam Field allowed for some wet-ball work, which was needed considering freshman Vic Wharton fumbled on a kickoff return. Jones barked at his players, calling for a "perfect practice." ... Receiver Marquez North rode a stationary bike during the open viewing period, and defensive end Curt Maggitt also is being monitored. ... Freshman tailback Derrell Scott and safety Cortez McDowell ran on the side of practice, while guard Dylan Wiesman, tight ends A.J. Branisel and Woody Quinn and freshman cornerback Rashaan Gaulden worked out in the "hole."
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