By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What do the football teams at Bluefield College and the University Georgia have in common?
They both have injuries and are playing lots of freshmen, and the results are predictable.
“(Georgia has) been struggling here lately, they have had a lot of injuries, they are playing a lot of freshmen just like us,” said Gilleland, a Bluefield College redshirt sophomore defensive end from just north of Atlanta. “It just proves at all levels in the collegiate game it is hard to play with freshmen.
“It is hard to win with freshmen, even if you are one of the top teams in the nation.”
Calling the Mid-South Conference ‘the SEC of the NAIA’, Gilleland understands the difficulty of trying to build a competitive program in what is the second season at Bluefield since 1941.
“It has been tough, but I know it is a process,” said Gilleland, who was recruited through an NCSA website by former Bluefield head coach Mike Gravier out of Creekview High School in Canton, Ga. “We started a program in high school in sixth grade and we didn’t win a whole lot from sixth to eighth, but once we got to high school we started cleaning the table with everybody.”
Being part of a new program helped coax Gilleland to Bluefield, who also visited Virginia-Wise, among others.
“I knew the goods and the bads about starting a new program,” said Gilleland, who helped the Grizzlies advance deep into the postseason, recording 206 tackles and scoring nine touchdowns in his final two years on the prep gridiron. “We lost three games in four years in my high school so I know what it is like to start a new program and we had good players going all the way through the program.”
Gilleland, a redshirt sophomore, who is majoring in business management with hopes of starting a business on a marina on the Gulf Coast, arrived at Bluefield as a linebacker, but was quickly moved inside and settled at defensive end.
“I like it, I would like to play a little bit of linebacker, but I don’t mind helping my team where they need it,” said the 21-year-old Gilleland.
That meant going on a weight-lifting and eating binge, and the 6-foot-1 Gilleland has added 42 points since arriving last August in Bluefield.
“I came in here at 205 pounds, right now I am at 247, I have developed a lot and it had a lot with me moving from linebacker to defensive line,” Gilleland said. “I got moved my first year because we didn’t have any defensive linemen so I have had to put on weight.
“This year I have developed a lot more as a player with Coach (T.J.) Lynch being here and really helping us out. I am looking forward to this year and the year after, I have still got two more seasons.”
It hasn’t been a pain-free couple of seasons for Gilleland. He missed three games with injuries last year and has already missed a trio this season with a torn muscle in his calf.
“It has been rough and I have been here since the first team,” he said. “I missed three games last year, I missed three games this year so it is just part of the game, injuries are going to happen.”
An avid fan of Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen, Gilleland is one of 23 players back from last season, and, even as a sophomore, is one of the oldest performers on the team, which qualifies him as a leader.
“I am not really much of a loud-mouth leader, I will lead more with attitude and the way I approach the game and the way I carry myself on the field,” he said. “I don’t ever step on the field and not give it my all.”
Gilleland had to watch from the sidelines two week ago in the homecoming loss to Belhaven, and had to sit at home during the previous two weeks while Bluefield was on the road, listening to his teammates go down to defeat.
“It is rough, I would sit in my living room, on the away games I wouldn’t travel, I would sit in the living room and listen to the game with my phone and I wanted to throw my phone against the wall,” Gilleland said. “(Being home) has been a little bit better, I got to be there with my teammates so that really helped out getting to be there.”
Gilleland, who has 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in four games for the Rams (0-7), will be on the field at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, Va. on Saturday, as the Rams seek to snap a 17-game losing streak against Southern Virginia (4-2).
“They do some good things, but we feel mostly that we should be able to match up with them,” Gilleland said. “Up front we should dominate and everywhere we should match up on both sides of the ball.
“We just hope to minimize the mistakes, not make so many turnovers and be able to make turnovers on our end too, that is all we are really hoping for. In college one little mistake can lead to a touchdown so you just have to minimize those mistakes and just play hard.”
That isn’t a problem for Gilleland, who doesn’t know any other way to play.
“It has been a tough year for Tanner, he is one of our leaders, it was great to have him back last week,” Walker said. “The guy knows how to practice, he knows how to work and set a tone for our defense, I am definitely a better coach when he is out there. He is a great technician on the defensive line..
“He came back last Thursday and played Saturday (in a loss to Union) and did some good things in the game. We are just a more physical defense with him in the game and also the depth that we have. With him being out, it really forced some other guys to play a lot and now we are just that much stronger now that he is back.”
Gilleland, who was practicing under chilly fall skies on Tuesday at Mitchell Stadium, has adjusted just fine to the intimate setting at Bluefield College, but isn’t a fan of the approaching winter.
“(I am from) a pretty small town too, it is not too bad for me, I live off in a very rural area, I live on a farm so it no big deal to me,” said Gilleland, of his Georgia home. “The cold weather is more of a shot to me. I hate the cold weather to be honest with you, I don’t much care for it.
“I actually came up here on my visit and it was snowing and I was thinking ‘Oh no, what have I done’. It is just part of it though. I enjoy it, I enjoy my teammates and I guess that is all that really matters.”
Losing will get old for anyone, especially for Gilleland, who has been around for 17 straight losses, but he doesn’t expect that trend to continue very much longer.
“I kind of figured it would be that way where college is a little bit different level than high school, and it is hard playing with high school players against juniors and seniors,” Gilleland said. “Now that we are starting to get some older players on the team, we are starting to compete a little bit more.
“Next year we expect to really put it to the conference teams and everybody else in the conference and kind of prove what Bluefield is all about. Next year we will be delivering the blows, it is going to be fun.”
—Contact Brian Woodson