Classes for the University of Washington's fall quarter had yet to begin in September when true freshman Garret Gilliland was forced to take a crash course in Emergency Adaptation.
Three days before the Sept. 18 game against Nebraska at Husky Stadium, Gilliland learned that starting middle linebacker Cort Dennison would spend the afternoon on the sideline with a concussion. While Dennison’s headache offered the chance of a lifetime for his young teammate, playing middle linebacker for the Huskies is an assignment more complex than shredding blocks and making tackles.
Gilliland was given the job of both calling the defensive formation before each snap, then overseeing whatever adjustments were necessary once the Cornhuskers lined up.
“It’s kind of a big responsibility,” Gilliland recalled Saturday. “There was a lot to think about. The opportunity to start a game on national TV, against a big-name team like Nebraska, was a dream come true – it’s why I came to school here. But I couldn’t just go out there and react.
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“I was fortunate to have seniors around me like Mason,” continued Gilliland, referring to Mason Foster, the all-Pacific-10 Conference linebacker. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.’ After a few minutes, I was able to settle down and use my instincts, instead of thinking too much.”
Gilliland’s effort in the 56-21 thumping wasn’t acknowledged with plaudits – the defense (and offense, for that matter) had gotten its clock cleaned – but neither did he impersonate a deer paralyzed by headlights. Despite dealing with strep throat earlier in the week of the Nebraska game, Gilliland played well enough to merit consideration as a starter for the Huskies’ retooled linebacker group in 2011.
Coach Steve Sarkisian was asked the other day if he thought there was a benefit to Gilliland’s forced football baptism against Nebraska.
“A benefit? I don’t think there’s a benefit to that,” Sarkisian said. “But the experience for him was valuable. By no means was he perfect, but just the opportunity to play in that game and get that experience against a big, physical front – there are lessons from that game that he’ll take with him and carry for a long, long time.
“Plus, he’s got a great story to tell when he’s older.”
The not-so-great story for the Huskies is that Foster has graduated, challenging them to replace the human tackling machine who patrolled the weak side. Gone, too, is strongside linebacker Victor Aiyewa, leaving the defense with two vacant jobs for at least six candidates.
With Dennison, who’ll be a senior, expected to resume his role as the signal-calling man in middle, Gilliland has been moved to the weak side. Tentative rotations through Day 2 of spring practice reveal Gilliland working with the first team, as Foster’s potential replacement, and redshirt freshman Jamaal Kearse filling in for Aiyewa on the strong side.
But remember, spring football depth charts have the permanence of deli meat. The linebacker mix could change when Cooper Pelluer and Princeton Fuimaono recover from shoulder injuries, or if John Timu and junior college transfer Thomas Tutogi enjoy strong camps.
Still, the upbeat expression on Gilliland’s face after practice Saturday suggested he’s found a home on the weak side.
“I’ll go where they put me,” he said, “but I definitely like where am now, at weakside linebacker. What I need to do now is to continue working at playing fast.”
Gilliland isn’t known for his explosive downfield speed, but at 6-foot and 215 pounds, he’s got the kind of quickness and nose-for-the-ball savvy considered essential for the position. And while the coach-on-the-field designation belongs to Dennison, there’s always a place on the football field for fearless guys with a brain.
An outstanding student at Orange Lutheran High in Anaheim, Calif., Gilliland was offered a scholarship by Duke and took a visit to Stanford before he decided on the UW.
“He’s a smart kid, really bright with a high football I.Q.,” Sarkisian recently said of Gilliland. “He’s tough. He’s not afraid of contact, and that’s what we like about him. He’s got good movement. He can understand how blocks come and how they don’t come, and he can avoid it. But then he’s got the courage to take them head-on when he needs to.
“So he provides a lot. It’s a good battle for him.”
The battle won’t be decided, presumably, until August, when more relevant conclusions will be drawn from more meaningful practices.
In the meantime, the ever-continuing education of Garret Gilliland will dwell on the improbable scenario that delivered an unsuspecting freshman, awaiting his first college class, into the middle of things during a nationally televised game against Nebraska.
So where does a kid, with three more seasons of college football ahead of him, put a story like that?
Duh, where else?
He puts it in Chapter I.