PLAINVILLE — There’s a desire that consumes Hayden Gillum.
It’s the relentless pursuit to grow.
It’s the relentless pursuit to improve.
It’s the relentless pursuit to get to the next level.
So the Plainville senior continues to work, continues to put in the time and effort that’s needed.
That desire has helped the behemoth move to a different position defensively while taking on more of a leadership role this year for a team that finished as the Class 2-1A state runner-up a year ago.
“It really gives us a good goal, because I know what it was like to be there last year,” Gillum said. “But I think we really have to realize what we have to do to get back to that spot. We’re not where we were last year, but we can very well do that if we do what we did last year.”
It’s no secret the Cardinals aren’t the team they were last year. Coach Grant Stephenson lost the bulk of his team’s offensive production as quarterback Hayden Friend and running back Riley Nyp graduated.
Friend threw for 2,039 yards and 28 touchdowns while being intercepted only eight times in 2016 as the team went 11-2, losing to Troy in the title game.
Nyp accounted for a team-high 1,539 rushing yards on 205 carries, averaging 118.4 per game while scoring 22 touchdowns. Friend added 1,268 rushing yards and 18 TDs.
The Cardinals’ top five receivers also graduated, headlined by Ryan Buresh’s 883 receiving yards and 13 scores.
So Plainville isn’t the team it was a year ago.
But Gillum isn’t the same player he was a year ago, either.
He packed on nearly 40 pounds in the offseason as he worked with Sharp Performance to get to where he needs to be to play college ball.
He’s gotten quicker as well, and stronger.
“This summer has been a big summer for me,” Gillum said. “I’ve been to a lot of camps and learned a lot — probably more than I have in my whole career in just this last summer.”
His growth — and resume the last three years — has him gaining looks from college coaches now. He spent a good portion of the summer attending camps at Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Christian and Wyoming.
“They’re all great schools, and a lot of them want to see how I do this season,” Gillum said. “I think it’s pretty exciting. I’d be willing to go to any of those schools. We’ll just have to see how it all works out.”
While the Cardinals lost their leadership core last year, Gillum and this year’s seniors will look to fill that void.
That’s something Stephenson is expecting the senior to embrace.
“He’s the one, too, that I’ve been preaching the most at about the leadership role,” the third-year Plainville coach said. “Right now, it’s the seniors’ team. I told them earlier that they haven’t made it to the state championship, haven’t beaten Smith Center or Norton. They haven’t won district. They haven’t won a game yet. This is a whole new season. And it’s about how much they want to get out of it. Hayden is one of those kids that if I can get him on board, the rest will follow. It’s just a matter of getting him and the senior class doing the right things and understanding and giving me all they have for those two hours so the freshman and sophomores — and all those younger ones — understand that’s what they need to do.”
That leadership role is something Gillum has grown into during his time at Plainville. He played a significant role defensively as a freshman, leading the team with 79 total tackles as the team went 3-6.
A year later, as a sophomore, Gillum led the team again with 90 tackles in another 3-6 campaign.
Last year, in the school’s run to the state title game, Gillum totaled 97 tackles as a linebacker.
“That’s the main thing,” Gillum said. “We had a meeting the other day about being leaders and pushing it down to the next group so it just keeps carrying down to keep building the foundation.”
One of the younger players expected to follow in his footsteps is Jared Casey. Now a sophomore, Casey has packed on pounds as well and grown in height. He’ll be manning a middle-linebacker spot on the stalwart defense.
“He’s smart on the field,” Casey said about Gillum. “He knows what he’s doing all the time. He’s also gotten a lot bigger. I can’t wait to see what he does this year.”
Casey has grown nearly 25 pounds in the offseason and spent a good deal of time with Gillum in the offseason.
“We had a lot of good leadership last year, and something like seven seniors left,” Casey said. “I think he’ll definitely fill the leadership role.”
Gillum is now at 6 foot, 3.5 inches and weighs nearly 250 pounds. He’s accustomed to playing a linebacker spot, but will move to a defensive tackle spot this fall.
Stephenson said he was a little apprehensive of moving his top tackler onto the defensive line, but the transition has gone well — thanks to a team-first approach.
“I thought so at the beginning of the summer,” Stephenson said. “It might not be where he wants to play, or even where Jared Casey wants to play, but it comes down to what’s best for the team. And they bought into it right at the beginning of the summer. I thought they might struggle with that, but they all said, ‘You just put me where you want me to play.’ That’s great as a coach to hear. Because even though they might play someplace else at the collegiate level, they’re not there yet and here’s where we need you as a team to be successful right now. They understand that, which is great.”
Gillum said his coach has made the transition easy.
“Coach is all about keeping us doing our jobs,” Gillum said. “I think that’s the main thing. He’s got us doing all the little things in practice. We’ve been reflecting on what we did last year to get there because we didn’t get there overnight. We all just started doing the little stuff and breaking down film. Every little detail gets you there.”
Those details are something Gillum has focused on in the offseason. Working with Sharp Performance helped him gain weight in a healthy way. He followed a strict diet and just didn’t binge on junk food.
“I was on a diet, a good diet, and I hit the weights pretty hard during track season,” he said.
“I’ve actually gotten faster. That’s the good thing. I wanted to make sure I was putting on good weight over the summer. I didn’t want to get slower.
“It was tough, because sometimes I just wanted to eat. But I had to make sure I was eating the right stuff to get me to where I needed to be.”
Stephenson said he knew Gillum had a solid chance to continue to grow. After all, his older brother, Hadley, is now 6-5 and weighs 225 pounds while playing basketball at Fort Hays State University.
“His brother is pretty big, so I figured he’s not done growing yet,” Stephenson said. “And he’s worked at it, and he’s been around some other big places at camp. He sees how far he has to go to play at those places at the higher level, the collegiate level. The size is there, but there are still some things too.”
That brotherly connection is something Gillum has taken advantage of. He’s talked with Hadley on numerous occasions about what it takes to play collegiately.
“Hadley told me if you sign up for this, you’ve got to want to do it because it’s a full-time job,” the Plainville senior said. “But he said it’s totally worth it.
“He’s showed me a lot of what I want to look for in a program and coaches. The kind of stuff I want to be around.”
That sibling bond also has helped make Gillum the type of player he is today.
“I think that’s just the competitive side in me that just comes out,” he said. “I just want to win.
“Pretty much since I’ve always been little (I’ve been that way). Maybe it’s the brother. I’m not sure.”
Not that Gillum doesn’t like basketball, though. He’s played key roles for the Cardinals the last several years as well on the hardwood.
He credits that sport with helping improve his footwork on the football field.
“I’ve always loved football,” Gillum said. “I’m a physical guy, and I think I love that aspect of football better. I like the contact sport more.”
For now, the senior is focused on his final prep season and working toward getting his team back to where they were a year ago while having some fun.
“That’s the main thing,” he said. “I’m still in high school, and I have another year. That’s really what I’m focused on right now — being the best I can be for my team. Then after the season, I’m more than happy to be able to choose where I want to go and then go that route. But for now, it’s about my team.”