February 11, 2009

Dillard proves big-time comes in small packages

A week ago, fans pored over their college football team's signing class and found comfort, if not euphoria, in those names with four and five stars affixed to them.

That's understandable. With highly ranked prospects often come highly ranked teams.

But don't overlook those two-star prospects, either. In two or three years, fans might be poring over names on All-America teams and wondering how their school let that player get away.

A perfect example is Jarett Dillard, a sticky-fingered receiver who could catch anything except the attention of big-time college programs. Five years ago, he entered Rice as a two-star recruit. He left as a two-time All-America honoree and holder of the Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) record for career touchdown receptions.

His is an inspirational story that any player who was ignored by the powerful programs can find solace in, especially since Rice prevailed in a less-than-intense recruiting race with Division III Wabash to get him.

Dillard beat the odds through hard work, determination, commitment and three squares a day. He has spent the past several weeks at the D1 training complex in Franklin, Tenn., hoping to become the first Rice player in six years to be selected in the NFL draft.

"I never dreamed this and I never expected to be here," Dillard said a few minutes before starting another grueling workout, which has become as much a part of his daily routine as brushing his teeth. "I thought I'd go to Rice, play my heart out and graduate. But here I am in Nashville, training for the NFL Combine. I never knew anybody from my high school who could tell me about this experience. I guess I'm a trailblazer."

The path he has blazed is as impressive as it was unlikely. He attended San Antonio's Sam Houston High School, which isn't known for its football program. In fact, one of its most successful athletes is Tai Dillard, Jarett's sister, who played basketball at Texas and in the WNBA.

Even though he was a three-year starter, an all-district selection and a regional qualifier as a hurdler, he almost didn't get a college scholarship.

"I was watching one of the UT [Texas] games [this past season], and the ESPN commentator cited Jarett after a couple of catches," said Porter Dillard, Jarett's father, an architect. "The commentator said he talked to [Texas coach] Mack Brown, who said to watch the Dillard kid and that he had tried to recruit him.

"I have to admit we never saw him or heard any inquiries. [Jarett] didn't have many schools coming for him. He had one – Wabash. They were D-III and they didn't have a scholarship."

Big-time programs such as Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech had their reasons for not offering a scholarship. In fact, they had 153 of them. That's what Dillard weighed in high school. Heck, you knew girls who weighed 150 pounds.

"I think they thought that I was too small and I wasn't fast enough," Dillard said. "There were so many things against me. But I liked to play. These days it seems that's not enough. Now they want guys that are 6-8, 280 and only halfway like football."

Ironically, Dillard was signed by a coach that only halfway liked to throw the ball. Porter Dillard said then-Rice coach Ken Hatfield offered a scholarship at the last minute because another prospect turned down the Owls and that Jarett had the grades to meet Rice's demanding academic standards.

Hatfield, who coached a dozen seasons at Rice, ran the triple option. From 2003-05, Rice ranked last in the NCAA in passing offense. Still, in '05, Dillard had 35 receptions, the most ever by a Rice receiver under Hatfield.

The next year, Todd Graham, the anti-Hatfield, took over and Dillard caught 91 passes – including 21 touchdown receptions – and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's premier receiver.

"My first year at Rice, I just wanted to play ball and get on the field," Dillard said. "Then, I had a breakout season, and I thought I wanted to try the NFL. My sophomore year I actually saw scouts looking at me. I thought maybe if I gained some weight and run a little faster …"

Dillard's thought tailed off, but his production didn't. Even though Graham left for Tulsa after the 2006 season and was replaced by David Bailiff, Dillard kept adding to his résumé by catching 79 passes in '07 and 87 in '08 to finish his career with 292 receptions for 4,138 yards and an NCAA-record 60 touchdowns.

He also kept adding to his frame.

He ate well. He worked out hard. He practiced harder. In the process, he built up to a muscular 185 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.

"You definitely see a physical difference," Porter said. "It came on gradually, so it wasn't shocking. He always acknowledged that he had to bulk up a bit to get to the next level. We'd always say, 'Yeah, but keep your critical skills at the same level.' "

He did that. Dillard's sure hands never were a question. But just to make sure, he constantly toted a football as if it was a leather accessory. He strived to run precise routes. He said he improved his speed in the 40-yard dash to the 4.4 range.

Will that be enough to make an NFL roster? That question won't be answered until August.

If not, Dillard has a fallback plan. Although he graduated with a degree in political science, he hopes to become a high school football coach. "That way I can show kids how to take the right route," he said.

He's already shown the way to some.

Last week, hundreds of two-star prospects signed letters of intent, and many of them had to accept offers from lower-profile programs such as Rice. Dillard would tell them that's not a consolation prize. Then, he would offer advice.

"I'd tell them don't worry about it at all," he said. "I have a lot of friends at big schools like Oklahoma and Texas; if they mess up once or twice they're not starting. At a smaller school, you'll get the opportunity to play against big schools and prove yourself.

"You never know what can happen."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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