Hayden Gillum: Path To The NFL Draft

By Simon Carroll

They say everything is bigger in the NFL; the stadiums, the drama, and most of all the people who play it. It makes sense – to be able to compete, you need to have the requisite size and strength – and to some extent, the limits of those measurables are out of a person’s control.

Nobody told that to Hayden Gillum, who relentlessly strove for the right to play college football at the highest level. And not only did he achieve it, he’s also built a resume comparable to anybody else with aspirations of suiting up on Sundays. The former Kansas State center sits down with Simon Carroll to discuss his path to the NFL Draft:

Football On The Farm

As far as narratives go, a young boy from the Midwest, growing up on a farm and becoming an NFL offensive lineman is entirely believable. But with Hayden Gillum’s story, jumping to the conclusion would mean missing out on one hell of a football journey – a journey that began with a life outdoors devoted to sports:

“I was born in Southwest Kansas, a place called Garden City. But we moved to Plainville fairly early on, and that’s where we all grew up – kind of grew up on the farm! I have an older brother, and in a small town like Plainville, you play all sports as a kid. So I kind of followed his lead and picked up everything; football, basketball – started playing tackle football in the fifth grade. At that age, you don’t really know much about the game, but I knew I loved it, running around outside, tackling people, what’s not to like?!”

Whilst his brother was something of a role model at a young age, the Gillum siblings eventually headed in different directions. Hadley devoted his attention to basketball, and ended up playing it at college. Hayden on the other hand realized that, a little bigger and heavier, he was destined for life on the gridiron. Not much bigger though – and certainly not the 300 pound man he is today. As a result, he played wherever the coaches thought he could compete – and the answer was every role he turned his hand to:

“In high school, as a freshman, I got the opportunity to get my first playing time on defense. At that stage, I probably weighed like 215lbs, and I played linebacker – and I loved it! To be honest, I’d play wherever I could fit in. But yeah, defense was really my thing throughout high school – I had the most career tackles in the history of our league, so I was pretty good at it! But at a small school, you play where you’re needed, which I was more than happy to do. As a senior I played fullback and defensive end. And that defensive line position was actually the role I had when I joined Kansas State as a preferred walkon.”

A Wildcat Walkon

When it came to college recruiting, Hayden Gillum was invariably up against it. No particular position, growing to an undetermined size, and being at a program without much attention didn’t open up a lot of doors for him. But Gillum did have two things going for him; self-belief, and a school on his doorstep that had a history of developing talent, no matter where it came from. The fact he and his family were diehard Wildcats also helped him make a very brave decision:

“I had some interest in the recruiting process, mostly from some small schools. I had one offer from Western Illinois, but nothing else really concrete. It’s tough being recruited out of a small school – that’s really what hurt me during that time. Not only that, but I’d put a bit of weight on but not much – I was up to about 240lbs, so nobody really knew what my position would be at college. I wasn’t a true edge rush defensive end. But going to K-State – I knew I was capable of doing it. At the time, Bill Snyder was known for taking walkons and giving them as equal an opportunity as the scholarship guys. I knew I had the ability to work towards getting a scholarship myself if I was in that environment. I was a big fan of the school too, which didn’t hurt, but ultimately I just trusted myself to make a success of it there – I just needed the opportunity.”

The role of a college football head coach does not come with job security. So to go play for a school legend who racked up 27 seasons at the helm of Kansas State was certainly a rare opportunity for Gillum. A legend with the Wildcats, Bill Snyder was as big a success story in College Football as nearly anybody to have coached the game – and after arriving in Manhattan it was immediately clear to Hayden why:

“The way Coach Snyder ran things was very unique. The way he valued guys that worked hard, did things right, were disciplined – regardless of scholarship status – I knew I was tailor made for a regime like that. I knew I could go there under him and have success. He was a details guy, which is exactly how I do stuff. The way he laid the foundation to win football games really made sense to me, and I bought into it and believed in it. My kind of family background and upbringing made me a good fit for that culture. I sadly only got one year under him, but I’m grateful for him giving me that chance, that foundation for my career.”

As Gillum mentioned, his time with Snyder did not last long. Whilst he probably wished he had longer in such esteemed company, Hayden knew what he was walking into when he signed for K-State:

“I didn’t know Coach Snyder was going to retire after my first year, but it was always a possibility. As a young kid, I had the opportunity to get my foot in a D1 program, and I was convinced I was going to make it, so I was going to be fine regardless of what came later. At that time he was in his late seventies when I joined, so I knew there would likely be some change during my four or five years in Manhattan. I just didn’t know when it would be.”

Finding A Home At Center

Hayden Gillum was perhaps more aware of what he was able to become as a football star more than anyone else – including his coaches. So when Bill Snyder’s retirement resulted in a change of coaching staff at K-State, he was reasonably unsure what plans the new regime would have for him. As it turned out, an unlikely internal battle for his services resulted in Gillum finding his forever home on a football field – at one of the most important positions in the sport:

“I was nervous. After that first redshirt year with Coach Snyder, a kid quit, and a kid transferred off the offensive line. The coaches suggested it would help me getting into fall camp if I made the jump to offense, and I didn’t blink. Just like at high school, wherever they needed me, I was gonna go. I obviously hadn’t played the position before, was something of just an all-round athlete at the time. So when the new staff came in, I kind of felt like I didn’t have a position. I’m not sure they knew what to do with me – they worked me out at tight end the next semester! But ultimately, Coach (Conor) Riley, my o-line coach throughout my time there, decided he wanted me at center. He saw potential in me to fit his style of pivot; athletic, tenacious guys who can play. They had discussions, and Coach luckily won the battle for me. I’ve been a center ever since.”

Finally committing to a position, Gillum took the first steps to mastering his new role. And one of the biggest challenges in this was getting his body to a size that it had never been before. Needless to say, it wasn’t an immediate transformation:

“I really struggled with it at first, when I was a young guy. But I got better. One of the things for me too, is that I wanted it to be good weight. My athleticism, ability to move, explosiveness – that’s what makes me the player I am, and I didn’t want to compromise that. I never wanted to get up to 315, 320lbs and it be bad weight, just for the sake of it. So it was important I did it the right way. I have to give big credit to the nutritionist and the staff around me who helped me get to that point, but it was definitely a challenge! Now, I find it easier, but last year I played at 300lbs, and it was perfect – it’s kind of where I plan to stay.”

I ask Gillum just how brutal a regime it was to be where he is today. Gillum enjoys challenging and pushing himself, but he did admit to some tough days early on:

“I was clearing the alarms on my phone the other day, and there was one there for 2:30am. It brought back memories of me at that time; waking up, making a 1,300 calorie protein shake, getting back to sleep and waking up for my 6am workout. That was a ruthless grind sometimes!”

Continuous Improvement

Hayden Gillum’s ascension to starting center didn’t happen overnight. He had to bide his time as he got bigger, going from 263 to 271 to 290 and finally 300 pounds his last four years at K-State. Not that he used it as an excuse; head coach Chris Klieman has been quoted as saying that Gillum was without doubt the most intense trainer on the roster during his time there – claiming nobody had more fun working than Hayden did. That gritty competitiveness defines him mentally, and has done since his days as a child on the farm. But as he grew, it was backed up with having the physical tools to compete as well:

“Since I got to K-State, I was always the scrappy guy – the one who was going to work the hardest, compete the hardest. But that’s tough when you’re a 260 pound man amongst 320 pound giants. So as I continued to get bigger and stronger, I really felt the benefits – solidified my role, and the game slowed down for me. Once I had my body right, I was able to shift my mental focus to the intricacies of the game like schemes, nuances, which helped me further. Even in this last season I felt myself getting bigger, stronger; which has continued to improve my anchor and do different things on the field.”

Gillum barely saw the field as a redshirt freshman. In 2020, he managed to play in six games – predominantly on special teams in field goal protection. And in 2021, he enjoyed some increased time coming in as a reserve offensive lineman. The incessant striving for improvement was slowly paying off, and the coaches recognised it too. At the end of his fourth season in Manhattan, still really only a sophomore thanks to COVID, Hayden was finally offered a scholarship. The faith he had in himself when he committed to K-State as a walkon was vindicated – Gillum had established himself as a Power 5 football player:

“I knew at that point I had to be close. When the new staff came in there was a lot of talented walkons that played, very much a characteristic of the Bill Snyder era. Coach Klieman inherited a lot of those guys, and it’s a credit to them that they sort of continued that pathway for a lot of us who dedicated ourselves in the right way. I love hard work, so it was never a grind, but it was special to see it pay off – and it was a testament to the younger me who took that chance as a walkon. Knowing I could do it at this level – reflecting on that was special.”

Starter, Leader, Winner

Hayden Gillum was anointed as the team’s starting center ahead of the 2022 season. Considering he weighed 225lbs in high school just five years earlier and had to walk on to get his foot in the door, it was a remarkable achievement. Still, Gillum wasn’t satisfied yet – now it was time to show he was worthy of the honor:

“It was kind of an interesting transition. I had a lot of great players ahead of me throughout my career. But in 2022, when In finally got my opportunity, I just knew I was gonna blow the doors off this thing. I went out there, and if I’m honest the game was moving fast at first. On the road at #6 Oklahoma, playing Texas – playing in a Big 12 Championship Game versus TCU who went to the National Championship – there was a lot going on. So throughout the year I didn’t really think about it, but Joe Moore Award watchlist, Big 12 accolades; when I got to the end of the season and I looked back, it dawned on me just how much I’d accomplished in my first year as a starter. I think only two other K-State centers had done what I did that year, and if I’m honest I still felt like I hadn’t done anything yet. I was only scratching the surface – getting the hang of it!”

Gillum’s hard work, ‘head down’ mentality may have left him a little blind to what he was achieving in one of the Willdcats’ greatest seasons in school history – but after stepping back and taking stock, it dawned on him that he had balled out and still had more to give – and taking it up another notch was next on the agenda:

“My good 2022 year gave me that confirmation that I should be coming back for my final season and push on, see what I could become. And my mentality that I came in with continued when it came to training and developing; I was going to win every race, do everything to the best of my ability. In the early days, that helped me mitigate for my size, but once I had the weight on AND I had that mentality? It allowed me to put the whole package together – on the field, as a captain and leader. And it’s a great example for the young guys too; they’ve seen where I’ve come from, and where I’ve ended up at. I always try to be that guy – bring the energy every day, make sure guys were locked in. There was a standard, and I was going to make sure we held it.”

That final season in the royal purple, Gillum also became a team captain. It was a role that the center embraced and relished – and it wasn’t lost on him how much of an honor it was:

“At Kansas State, they hold the title of captain in high esteem. The whole team votes for them, so to earn that honor in my last season really topped off a decorated career. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors in terms of leadership – not just what you see on Saturdays. It was something I valued and thought was very important.”

Opening Eyes

It’s no coincidence that the Wildcats won 19 games in the two years that Hayden Gillum was the team’s starting center. A conference championship and New Years’ Six bowl game in 2022 was backed up with another big season last year. Despite the success, Gillum is quite frank when it comes to whereabouts he is on his own personal development curve – and he isn’t close to tapping out yet:

“That’s one of the biggest things with me; I’ve started two years straight, won a Big 12 championship, played in the Sugar Bowl – I’ve done a lot of things. But relative to offensive line, and career starts, that’s not a tonne compared to a lot of other guys. Whilst I competed and succeeded at a high level in college, I’ve still got that ability to grow that maybe other prospects don’t have. Offensive line is somewhere where there’s a lot of room for growth, and I’ve continued to learn. I’m not near my top or my peak yet – there’s even more to come from me.”

Despite more to come, Gillum was aware of outside noise. He was getting noticed, and it made him realize that perhaps football would be in his future beyond his time in Manhattan. Could this fairytale story have an NFL ending?

“After that 2022 season, the Big 12 Championship, my phone started ringing with agents. People were reaching out, accolades and awards were coming my way, and like I said I didn’t even feel like I’d done that much at this point. But I looked at all the defensive ends that got drafted that offseason, and was convinced I could compete with them. I’d only given up one sack at that stage of my career. Perhaps it was a slow transition for me mentally, from thinking ‘I’ve gotta make it, gotta prove myself’ to ‘I belong here, and I can go even further’. It was at that moment I realized I could do this job better than a lot of people. It was a turning point in my thought process – as convinced as I was back then that I could make it at college, I am just as convinced now that I can do it in the NFL.”

The Evolution Of Center In The NFL

The NFL does not stand still. As a scheme evolves, so does the role of the pieces in it – and what was once the standard size and shape at a position no longer necessarily applies to every team. This is true for center, where size is nowadays being eschewed for speed. Just look at the 2022 NFL Draft, where the first two centers off the board – Tyler Linderbaum and Cam Jurgens – both weighed 300lbs. Coaches are looking for guys who can block on the move – and Hayden Gillum believes he fits the bill:

“When I first came to the offensive line, I didn’t know anything about playing center. But it’s something I have really grown to appreciate and love – it’s one of the most satisfying positions I’ve ever played. I pride myself on being able to direct our whole offense, know our schemes inside out, understand defenses and what they’re trying to throw our way. And I come from a pro style offense; gap, zone, man schemes, I’ve done it all – I’m excited to show that to scouts and coaches when I have those interviews. Having a center you can trust with all those responsibilities is a huge asset.”

It should be noted here that throughout our forty minute interview, Gillum never comes across as anything other than humble. His confidence feels genuine, and earned through years of work and sacrifice. Without a hint of braggadocio in him, he convinces me that he isn’t just worthy of a roster spot; he’s going to be a starter at the next level:

“I’m confident that, athletically, i’m up there with any center in this draft class. I’m able to do a lot of stuff; I ran a tonne of pin and pull at K-State – I’m thankful Jason Kelce has made that popular at the next level, because I’m good at it! My power and quickness allows me to cover in gap schemes, my pass protection speaks for itself. And to do it consistently like I do, with the grit I’ve shown since I first got to college – I think that’s all you can ask for.”

Mentioning Kelce, I’m almost compelled to ask if he models his game on any particular NFL center. Two other names are offered – and whilst you might not have immediately thought about them yourself, it tells you that Gillum is a true student of the game:

“I’ve always looked up to Jason Kelce. His ability to do what he does is incredible. David Andrews is someone who was undrafted, but is now nearing year ten in the league – he’s an inspiration. His ability to climb to the second level – and play at about my size, his game is one I’ve studied quite a bit. Much like me he’s had to do it the hard way. And since I’ve been training in Nashville, Aaron Brewer of the Titans has been a fun watch; his explosiveness and pass pro in particular is impressive. I’m definitely a sponge though – I like to take bits from everybody, because there’s guys in the league that do different things exceptionally well. I want to learn all of those pieces and implement them into my own game.”

Pro Day Prep - Resetting The Narrative

Hayden Gillum now turns his intense, incessant attention to conquering the NFL draft process. If it’s anything like his rise in college football, you’d be silly to bet against him. That said, he did suffer a minor setback to begin life after K-State – not that he would have ended his Wildcat career any other way:

“I had surgery on my thumb a month ago. Nothing major, just something I had to get repaired. But I injured it in the bowl game, my final game. If I’d have known I would have gotten hurt, it wouldn’t have changed my decision one bit – it was important I finished the job and went out on a high with those guys, and helped propel the younger classes to keep what we’d built going. But it is my snapping hand, did set me back a little as I entered my draft prep. I had to turn down one of the all-star games as a result, but it was the right decision – I don’t want anything lingering when I show out on my pro day on March 27th.”

As mentioned earlier, Gillum is currently in Nashville training with X3 Performance – presumably taking on the grind and hard work with a beaming smile on his face. As he has done all of his life, he’s leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of maximizing himself:

“Right now, my main focus is getting my body into peak performance. Whether that’s diet, testing and combine drills, as well as football stuff too. The whiteboard is a big focus too, to have my brain in the right position to recall and relay a playbook, schemes and defenses – so when I get asked the questions I’m confident in my answers. Not only that, but it’s an opportune time to get a head start, going to a team and being familiar with what is coming my way on Sundays.”

As Gillum prepares for his pro day, he’s not only keen to show scouts a two year starter has plenty to offer, but he’s also determined for people to see who he is now – not just a tale of defeating the odds, but a bonafide prospect who is worthy of comparison with any other at his position in this draft class:

“I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ve had a great few weeks thus far in Nashville. The biggest thing for me is I have a fairly small sample size of stuff. They might say he’s not as experienced as other guys. But you look at what I’ve done in that time, the consistently high level I’ve done it to, it’s just a case of putting the focus on it that way. And really, I’m looking to change the narrative now. Back in 2022, when I ascended to the starting center job, it was all about how amazing my journey was, the battle against adversity for this small walkon kid who competed at a big man’s position. Well, that was a great story then, but now, it’s different. I want to be considered on my merits. Let’s push that walkon stuff behind me. I’m a solidified Power 5 starting center now. I belong here, and I’m more capable at this than everyone else out there.”

Embracing A New Challenge

Plainville is where it all began for Hayden Gillum. And being Kansas through and through, it’s unsurprising to hear he intends to head back home and experience the next milestone in an incredible career with his parents, brother, and wife Preston – who also has ties to the Sunflower State:

“I was just discussing my plans for draft weekend with my wife the other day! I think I’m heading back to Western Kansas and just spending time with my family. Her family played sports at K-State, and she graduated from there too, so we’ll all head back there and relax and hang out, and see where we’re going to move to! In the past, I’ve always watched the draft, been really interested in it, but I think it will be a little different this time with me being in it. There’s a lot on the business side of it, but I’m just going to try and enjoy it.”

Having interviewed nearly 100 draft prospects in the last four seasons for The Touchdown, I can safely say that none of them love the game of football as much as Hayden Gillum does. The intensity with which he dedicates himself to the sport feels like it’s borne from a fear of never being able to play it again. A career that was never guaranteed but also never given up on looks set to continue on Sundays – and Gillum has earned it. On draft weekend, the hard work that has gone will be recognized, and the hard work to come eagerly anticipated:

“It’s a special time. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point, to sit there on draft weekend and wait for your phone to ring. But when it does, I’m going to be ready to embrace the challenge, take the next step and do what I do, no matter where I’m going. I love football, and I’m looking forward to being able to continue playing it. And after the career I’ve had, being able to put a stamp on it and say I’m a professional football player, it would be special. I can’t wait to share that moment with my family.”

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Hayden for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchdown wishes him well in his future career.