Gilliland missed practice Monday and Tuesday because of strep throat. He received more jarring news when he arrived in the lockerroom Wednesday. Starting middle linebacker Dennison was ruled out because of a concussion. Gilliland was informed he would be Dennisons replacement. Against ninth-ranked Nebraska. In sold-out Husky Stadium. On national television.
I was pretty nervous, Gilliland said Thursday. It was crazy.
Gilliland and the Huskies took their lumps. Nebraska ran through Washington with the ease of a Sunday drive, blasting the Huskies 56-21 and setting up the sure-win feel prior to the Holiday Bowl rematch. Despite the lambasting, the to-be sophomore Gilliland came away with benefits.
It taught me a lot about the speed and size of the game, Gilliland said. Its just so much different than practice, actually getting thrown out there with the crowd, the noise, all the external things.
The result changed in the second round against Nebraska, and things are much different for Gilliland this year during spring football. Gone are linebackers Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa. What was a position of experience, strength and reliability, is now open and one of the focal points of practice.
Gilliland spent last season learning both the middle and weakside linebacker spots. Hes back to the weakside this year, in Fosters role.
Because of my size I like playing on the outside better, Gilliland said. It fits my quickness a little better and Im able to play more in open spaces.
Coming out of Anaheim, Gilliland, 6 feet, 215 pounds, shared co-MVP honors in the Trinity League with USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Barkley was on the national radar, giving Gilliland a bump in prestige by sharing recognition with him.
Barkleys prominent roll began last season. Gilliland will try make a leap this year by claiming one of the vacated linebacking spots. Junior college transfer Thomas Tutogi is in the mix at strongside. Freshman John Timu, junior Jordan Wallace and currently injured linebackers Princeton Fuimaono and Cooper Pelleur will also be considered at the linebacker rotation.
Cort, hes the leader, he helps us with the calls and the adjustments, Gilliland said. Me and Jordan and the other young guys projected to play outside this year, were young and we just have to get it down really fast.
Gilliland played special teams all last season, another step that is necessary for any linebacker under head coach Steve Sarkisian. Gilliland said that, along with the Nebraska exposure, boosted his on-field comfort.
Sarkisian likes his football IQ and ability to read where blocks are coming from. He also knows the first full game for Gilliland was bumpy, but that experience will benefit him this season and perhaps when hes an octogenerian.
Theres things from that game that hell take with him and carry for a long, long time, Sarkisian said. Plus hes got a great story to tell when hes older.