By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- At some point, nearly every little boy in East Tennessee grows up dreaming of suiting up for the Volunteers and running through the "T" each fall Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
As natives of the Knoxville area, Jacob Gilliam and Kyler Kerbyson have done just that. With all five starting spots open on the offensive line, Gilliam and Kerbyson now want to take the next step and be major contributors for Team 118.
"They are making the most of their opportunity right now," head coach Butch Jones said. "When you look at Jacob Gilliam, he's been in this football program for a very long time. To be able to reward him with a scholarship because he earned it, he comes to work every day, he has a great consistency every day, we're very proud of him. Kyler Kerbyson is an individual that just continues to work and gets better each and every day."
Gilliam has played in just three games in his Tennessee career, but has taken a step forward this off-season, ready to contribute as a senior. Enough so that the former walk-on got the call while at the pool in May with the news Jones referenced. He was being placed on scholarship.
"It's been a lot of fun," Gilliam said of getting first-team reps in the spring and during training camp. "The last couple of years, siting behind some really good guys, getting to learn everything."
Kerbyson has played in 19 games over the past two seasons, including all 12 in 2013 as a reserve lineman and on special teams. The increased playing time has not dampened the excitement that he feels every time he takes the field in the orange jersey.
"Years before, I took big pride in just being on the field goal team," Kerbyson said. "I just wanted to get in the game, I'd do anything to be on field goal. When I got my chance, it was huge for me. I take that pride with me now, even though I'm a starter and going to play more reps, it's a big deal"
Jones has made the state of Tennessee a focus in recruiting, in part because of the connection that in-state players feel to the program, having grown up cheering for the Volunteers. Though both Gilliam and Kerbyson were on the roster before he arrived at UT, Jones sees the qualities he is looking for in future Volunteers in the eyes of both players.
"It's very special," said Jones. "Their families built a strong relationship and rapport with the entire team just because they're from Knoxville. Players go over to their houses a lot and I know it's been neat for their families to be involved like that. It's been great to see and they've really taken them under their wings."
Kerbyson said he has been all orange from the cradle to his cleats and he plays for those that have helped him along the way.
"It's huge for me," he said of suiting up at UT. "I grew up a huge Tennessee fan, my parents bled orange and they poured it into me. Being able to play here in front of my home town, I have a lot of friends that love me and support me and are happy for me that I have this chance. I want to take advantage of it for those people. Gilliam said being in Neyland Stadium never gets old, but he still remembers his first time there.
"I went to my first game against the Houston Cougars when I was seven years old," he said of the 42-7 UT win on Sept. 26, 1998. "That was real special for me and it's special for me to be here now."