UNIVERSITY PARK — Garry Gilliam nearly left a few reporters with a cliffhanger ending on Saturday.
He left the door open that he could possibly change his mind and return for his sixth season of eligibility next fall. About two seconds later, Gilliam laughed and closed the door to that possibility.
“I’m settled with my decision and hopefully it plays out the way I want it to,” Gilliam said of his intention to try and make an NFL team next fall.
It was a decision Gilliam pondered early and often this season. He said he struggled with it at times, not knowing what he wanted to do. In the end, he sat down for a chat with Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and talked about the possibility of an NFL future among other things.
O’Brien quickly pointed out Gilliam’s rare gifts — he’s 6-foot-6, weighs nearly 310 pounds and is more fleet of foot than most his size. But Gilliam was previously a tight end and has spent just one season protecting quarterbacks as a tackle — a spot he and O’Brien believe his skill set is more tuned for.
“He said there’s not many 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 310-pound guys that can move like I do,” Gilliam said. “He said if an NFL team can see the potential there and develop me, I only have one year under my belt as an offensive tackle. So if they take a chance and want to develop me in that aspect then there would be no reason that wouldn’t happen.”
The way Gilliam figures it, he might as well try sooner rather than later. He already lost two years of football to a knee injury and resulting infection. Because he missed most of two seasons with knee issues, Gilliam was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
But he’s on pace to earn a second degree in December and he’ll be 23 years old this week. He said he’s ready to move on from college life.
“For me it just gets to the point where six (years) is a long time,” Gilliam said. “You just kind of get tired and over the whole college thing. So I’m going to train and try my hand at the next level and if that doesn’t work, I have plenty of degrees that I can fall back on.”
He’s not sure for certain whether he’ll train at Penn State’s facilities this winter and into the spring or if he’ll return home to Harrisburg. Gilliam said he’s leaning toward staying at Penn State as a third degree has his eye.
But his ultimate goal for now is to continue his football career even though it won’t be for Penn State.
“I’m definitely going to train and hone those skills that need to be sharpened to be a better option at the next level,” Gilliam said.
For the last four weeks, Penn State football practices have been louder than they were in the early portions of the season. Especially when the first team defense is practicing.
Sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas said it’s been a primary focus for defenders to improve their on-field communication between themselves and with coaches and teammates on the sideline. Everyone is barking at everyone. The goal is to keep everyone informed, in the loop and prevent lapses and coverage breakdowns.
While Penn State’s defense was out of sorts in the early goings — games against UCF, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State featured multiple defensive lapses that resulted in big plays that turned momentum against Penn State — the Nittany Lions have tightened up over the last four games.
Aggression and physicality have been consistent factors during the recent four-game stretch. In that time opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 15 percent of offensive possessions against the Penn State defense. That counts 47 drives combined from Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. On the 47 drives Penn State faced before this recent span? Opponents were scoring touchdowns 38 percent of the time.
Meanwhile the Nittany Lions have forced eight turnovers and racked up 10 sacks in four games.
“I think the defense has really come on in the last couple of games,” Carson said. “I think that we’re just finally going out there and playing fast, not overthinking and just going out there and having fun. When our defense is out there just playing ball and having fun that’s when we play our best.”
Penn State’s special teams have devolved from lackluster to outright bad.
A missed extra point and a botched overtime field goal from Sam Ficken bookended a day in which Penn State gave up another return touchdown. It was the second return Penn State has given up in the last two games and went for 99-yards when Kenny Bell accelerated out of a corner and across the field.
Alex Butterworth had a punt blocked in the second quarter.
Christian Hackenberg didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers on Saturday.
Hackenberg overthrew a number of his targets on a day that saw him complete 16 of 33 passes for 217 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. But a fiew of his throws that were spot on were dropped. Allen Robinson dropped two passes while Eugene Lewis, Jesse James and Brandon Felder each dropped one.
Robinson was targeted a team-high 15 times and made up for his two drops with eight catches for 106 yards.
Day to Remember
Mike Hull played his best game of the season and made nine tackles — most of them at key times. He followed Brandon Bell and put a crushing hit on Ron Kellogg at the goal line to force Nebraska to settle for a game-tying field goal.
A knee injury limited him earlier this season and Hull looks to be improving. He was all over the field in ways he hasn’t been able to be this season.
Day to Forget
It was easily Ficken’s toughest game since the loss to Virginia last season. His missed extra point and missed field goal in overtime both could’ve put Penn State ahead at the end.
While he’s not on the team to tackle, he missed a desperate attempt to stop Bell on Nebraska’s return score, too. A week earlier Ficken made that play.
Key Play You Already Forgot
Really the special teams blunders started almost immediately for Penn State when Jesse Della Valle muffed the game’s first punt.
Fortunately for Penn State Della Valle was able to recover the ball at his own 24-yard line. It could’ve been much worse for Penn State as Nebraska would’ve likely had possession in the red zone had Della Valle not recovered the ball.
“It was kind of surreal knowing that this was going to be the last time I could walk out of that tunnel and look up like that with the uniform on and the pads. I’m pretty emotionally even guy so I wasn’t overly emotional or anything like that but obviously it has a huge spot in my heart, Penn State.” — Garry Gilliam on acknowledging Saturday as his final game at Beaver Stadium.