FRISCO, Texas — As the Montana Grizzlies prepare for the FCS national championship game, one player who’s played a huge role in their success is redshirt freshman Eli Gillman.
After his monstrous season, Gillman was named the winner of the Jerry Rice Award, which goes to the best freshman in the FCS.
"A lot of it is like a mental piece because a lot of people are ready, they just don't believe it which is a problem," said Gillman. "So when they threw me in last year it was good to get going, like kind of flow of how fast the game actually is, knowing that I can actually play and hang out with these guys, and you know ball with them.
"And then when it came around to fall camp I was working, working, working and the confidence just kept growing and growing and growing and by the time the first game came I was ready to go."
After his first reps last year against Eastern Washington in which Gillman notched his first career touchdown in a Griz uniform, he knows it’ll be a memory that sticks with him forever.
"I remember it like it was yesterday, every like worry or fear anything ever had towards football just like went away and it made me like just completely fall back in love with the sport again," Gillman said.
As for what it means to be the first Griz in program history to receive the Jerry Rice Award after totaling over 1,000 scrimmage yards in his first full season, Gillman credited his teammates.
"It’s been phenomenal for me and our team," said the redshirt freshman. "I’ve just been super blessed for the opportunity to play as much as I am this year, and blessed to play behind the linemen I have too, which make it really easy for me to do my job."
And when it comes to those linemen, Gillman credits his success and that of the team in the run game all to relationships they’ve built.
"Great dudes, I mean, we work together almost every single drill and practice all the time. So like we build that trust level and I gotta trust that they're gonna do their job and then they're gonna trust me to do mine," said Gillman. "So when we work together that much it just builds the kind of bond that you just know where to go and they know where to go. And then success happens after that."
It's the kind of success that has led them here to the national championship, where for every member of the Montana roster the lights have never been brighter.
"I just got to remember we're all in it together, me and my whole team, right?" said Gillman. "So I know when I go into the game I got more comfortable with knowing that it's like we're all going to war together. So it's easier knowing that everyone's behind you going to work for the same thing."
Gillman didn’t lose a single fumble all season, a streak he’ll need to continue against South Dakota State's stout run defense that’s recovered eight fumbles this year and has held opponents to under 100 yards a game on the ground. And as the Griz hone in on the big game ahead, the Gillman winner is ready to roll.
Gillman will receive the award from Jerry Rice himself on Saturday night at the FCS awards ceremony the night before the big game.
"It's so sweet," said Gillman. "I mean, (I'm) blessed with the opportunity and we're going to take advantage of it, that's for sure."