April 12, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Garret Gilliland is covering a fullback on an out route. Now he is stuffing an inside run.
He's everywhere - in a span of eight plays.
"Yeah," the Huskies' sophomore weak-side - and middle, "Will" and "Sam" - linebacker said with a chuckle after he did all those roles and more again in spring practice on Tuesday at Husky Stadium. "I love it, man.
"I think it's my natural position. I'm enjoying it."
Perfecting pass coverage, pass rushes, run-gap fills and defensives signal calling all at once this spring next to senior-to-be middle linebacker Cort Dennison? No big whoop compared to what Gilliland pulled off to make his first college start last season.
Dennison sustained a concussion in the second game, UW's win over Syracuse last September. Gilliland was next in line at middle linebacker, as the anchor and quarterback of the defense. But he had strep throat. He was fevered. Couldn't eat. Lost weight and strength. He was out of practice until Wednesday that week. That meant the true freshman had two days to get better plus learn crash courses in Nebraska's multiple offense and the Huskies' plan for it in that Saturday's game against the Cornhuskers.
"I came back and found out Cort was out. I called my dad and told him, `Well, I guess I am starting against Nebraska.' ... Kind of got thrown in the fire," Gilliland said, laughing again. "Wasn't feeling the best that week, but I was called on and had to do what I had to do."
With Dennison helping prepare him, Gilliland made his only career start that day. His parents, Kim, a loan officer, and David, who works in the shipping and transportation industry, were inside Husky Stadium. Loads of family and friends watched on television back home in Anaheim Hills, Calif. The 6-foot, 215-pound Gilliland became one of a school-record 14 freshmen to play last season, and was one of eight of them to start a game.
"The thing I could never prepare for was getting the call, my first start, against the No.-8 team in the country," he said. "It was an amazing experience, and I wouldn't take it back for anything.
"I was a great experience. The game didn't end up good, but it was great getting the feel for the college game, the speed and the size and the tempo."
Now coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt are calling on Gilliland's unique experience as a freshman to help fill a need at outside linebacker. John Timu, who enrolled late three months ago out of Long Beach's Jordan High School in California because of an injury, has joined Gilliland in flanking Dennison on the first-team defense through seven spring practices.
Not that Sarkisian thinks getting thrown into the center of the defense against Nebraska as a true freshman with just two days of preparation is necessarily the best start to a career.
"A benefit? I don't think there's a benefit to that," Sarkisian deadpanned.
"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 success of the linebacker unit last season - Foster led the Pac-10 in tackles and led the nation for most of the season, and Aiyewa led the conference in tackles for losses - is a large reason why Washington rallied with four consecutive wins to close the year.
Gilliland's opportunity is coming after he turned down scholarship offers from Colorado, Fresno State and Duke. The co-MVP of the Trinity League in Southern California while at Orange Lutheran High School - he shared the honor with current USC quarterback Matt Barkley - was also a strong enough student to make two unofficial visits to Stanford.
He chose Washington because Holt was one of the first college coaches to recruit him, and because the Huskies stayed with him even though he injured his ankle in the second game of his senior season. He only played in six games that year. He wanted to return UW's loyalty, so he committed in November of that season.
"I love it here. I really like the school. It's a great fit. And I really like Coach Sark," Gilliland said.
"No second guessing."
Then again with all he's been doing already at UW, there's been no time for that.