LB Michael Gilliard ‘not a soft guy,’ enjoying his last few weeks as a Bulldog

Mike Gilliard’s final season of college football hasn’t come without its less-than-delightful developments.

After starting the first five games of Georgia’s season at inside linebacker, he assumed a backup role when sophomore Alec Ogletree returned to the lineup after a multi-game suspension.

And in the days after the Bulldogs’ 29-24 victory at Kentucky, Gilliard and fellow senior Christian Robinson were, in essence, called out by free safety Shawn Williams for playing “soft.”

But all’s well that ends well as Georgia’s defense has been positively ravenous for three consecutive weekends, limiting Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn to a combined 19 points en route to the Bulldogs’ second consecutive Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound graduate of Valdosta High said he’s been somewhat pleased with his play this season, although he admits his performance hasn’t necessarily met his high projections.

“I’ve been pretty happy,” said Gilliard, who has recorded 16 starts in his career. “With the whole inside linebackers’ rotation, it’s kind of frustrating, but at the same time, if you’re a true competitor, you would be frustrated. It’s going good, but I thought my senior season — I had high expectations for myself, let’s put it that way. But things don’t always go your way, so I’m making the best of it and helping the team out as much as I can.”

Gilliard’s career progress has not gone unnoticed by his coaches or teammates.

“Michael is a starting linebacker when we’re in base,” coach Mark Richt said. “Michael has grown throughout his career. He’s gotten better every single year and he’s taken on responsibility of being a good senior leader.

“His body, year by year, has gotten little bit bigger, a little bit stronger and a little bit faster and he certainly has a great knowledge of what we’re trying to do. He plays physical, takes on blocks well, doesn’t jump around things, understands gap responsibilities and plays them well. He’s doing a very nice job for us.”

Added fellow linebacker Amarlo Herrera: “Mike Gilliard has come a long way from not really playing to contributing a lot. He’s a great player. He makes tackles and he gets to the ball.”

There’s little question that Williams’ remarks stung Gilliard — who is sixth on the team with 45 tackles and two tackles for loss — but he’s responded
by making Georgia’s opponents miserable in the last month.

“That next week, I got up and told the defense that I’m hitting anybody in my way,” he said. “Each and every week, I try to have that same mentality, but at the same time be focused and in the game and play my assignments.”

Robinson said that he felt Gilliard provided the appropriate response to the slight that was launched their way.

“Mike handled it well,” Robinson said. “He said we got called out. You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing and he did that. He made big plays — if you go back and watch the Florida game, he was trying to punish people. Mike is not a soft guy. He handled it the right way and has continued to get better and has proved — not just to himself, but to everybody — he wasn’t that guy and he never was that guy.”

Gilliard said that in his mind, the only thing that changed after Williams’ declaration was that the entire defense has stiffened.

“Nothing really changed,” said Gilliard, who coincidentally recovered a fumble caused by Williams in the Bulldogs’ 38-0 victory over Auburn. “I feel like the defense as a whole — it sparked us. Personally, I took it as disrespectful and personal, but I felt the defense all felt inclined to go even harder, and in these past weeks, that’s what we’ve been doing. I guess Shawn got what he wanted. The end result was to see the defense playing harder and faster, and we’ve been doing that the past couple of weeks.”

Despite the hills and valleys he’s traversed this season, praise has been forthcoming for Gilliard’s determination to help the team in any way he can.

“Everybody understands that whatever role you have you have to play it well and with the right type of attitude,” Richt said. “I see a bunch of guys that are enjoying playing defense and enjoying the success we’ve had lately. Michael has adjusted very well.”

“It’s easy to trip back when you might be thinking someone’s saying something about you,” Robinson added. “Mike’s worked his tail off the whole time he’s been here and was able to step in like it was nothing. Now, having played so much and knowing the playbook and communicating with the other guys, he’s making guys around him better. That’s what you need — you get the guy lined up and let him play. And it’s been huge for our team.”

And with just a few more games remaining in his college career, Gilliard — who in his career has 125 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and one interception — said that with the time he has left, he plans to leave it all on the field.

“I feel like it really hit me (Monday) night because I could not go to sleep,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I only have a few more games at the University of Georgia.’ I was lying in bed for like an hour thinking the last game is coming closer and closer. But I’ll keep going out on the field every single game I have left and I’ll give it my all and end the season with a bang.”