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November 3, 2006 > Sports > Focus on Jarrett Dillard

Focus on Jarrett Dillard

Of sophomore wide receiver Jarett Dillard’s 12 touchdowns this year, none were bigger than the one he caught to beat the University of Alambama-Birmingham three weeks ago. The Owls were down to their last breath, trailing the Blazers by five points with seven seconds left in the game. Two plays earlier, UAB blew a chance to seal the victory when, after intercepting a pass from sophomore quarterback Chase Clement, Blazer linebacker Kris Guyton fumbled the return. The Owls had the ball at the Blazer nine-yard line with one last opportunity to win the game. In the huddle, Dillard demanded the ball.

“We were trying to figure out what play to call and he said, ‘Give me the ball, we’re going to win this game,’” senior left tackle Rolf Kreuger said. “There was no doubt we were going to win when he said that.”

The moment was typical of Jarett Dillard. Normally, he’s as unassuming a person as you’ll ever meet — someone who would rather talk about his younger brother’s middle school games than about any of his own. Dillard prefers to blend in; that is, unless he finds it necessary to step up and be heard.

“I lead when I think leadership is needed,” Dillard said. “I’m trying to establish myself [as] a good leader all the time, because that’s what a leader is — a full time job. Right now, I’m in between that, but I’m trying to step forward and become that guy.”

Under the new spread offense of first-year head coach Todd Graham, Dillard has excelled. The San Antonio native has one of the most impressive stat lines in all of college football. On top of leading the nation in receptions and receiving touchdowns — his 12 are already a single-season Rice record — Dillard ranks in the top five in all other major receiving categories. For his efforts, Dillard is finally garnering national attention. On Oct. 27, he was named one of 14 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff award, given each year to the top receiver in college football.

Even with the newfound recognition, Dillard says he’s more focused on getting Rice into a bowl game, which would require the Owls to win three of their final four games.

“I try to stay away from stats and national awards — I’ll let that come at the end of the season,” Dillard said. “If you start to look at that, you start playing the game just for stats and not for the win.”

Chase Clement feels differently. He sees every completion to Jarett Dillard as a boost to the program this season and, just as importantly, for seasons to come.

“As long as I keep getting him the ball, his stats are going to keep rising,” Clement said. “It’s not just for him, it’s important for our program. That builds Rice University up, helps us to get guys in here that can help us win, and put fans in the stadium.”

Dillard’s success isn’t out of the blue — his 35 catches last year were the most by an Owl since Jimmy Lee (Lovett ‘95) caught 36 in 1993, and his 5 touchdowns were the most since 1994. He earned a spot on Conference-USA’s all-freshman team as well. These numbers, while they may not appear overwhelming, are impressive given that under former head coach Ken Hatfield, Rice had an option-based running attack, throwing the ball almost exclusively in desperate situations.

One might wonder, then, why a receiver of Dillard’s caliber would even come to Rice. The reason is simple: he had no other option. In today’s college football recruiting, a game obsessed with heights, weights and 40-yard dash times, Dillard’s numbers are anything but impressive. He is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, and his listed weight of 180 pounds is generous. However, Dillard and his teammates have turned his small stature into a positive.

“He always says before the game, asks all his teammates ‘How tall am I?’” Graham said. “And they all say, ‘11-foot-5.’ That’s the way he looks at it. He believes that ball is his, and he can’t be stopped.”

While Dillard’s high school numbers were impressive, Hatfield was the only coach of a Division I-A program to offer him a scholarship. When Hatfield resigned following a 1-10 record last year, Dillard said he was upset with the departure of the one coach who gave him a chance.

“It was a bittersweet moment,” Dillard said. “Hatfield’s … a good man, he gave me my opportunity here, and I had established my spot as a receiver here.” Dillard said. “I knew with a new coach, he was going to throw it more, which was sweet, but there was going to be a lot of competition.”

The new coach came in the form of Todd Graham, who brought in former University of Texas quarterback Major Applewhite as the offensive coordinator. Competition came when sophomore Tommy Henderson and senior Mike Falco moved from running back to receiver, but as the team learned Applewhite’s system after spring practice, it became evident how talented a receiver the team had in Dillard.

“The guys came out in seven-on-seven [drills over the summer] and then when we came out into fall camp it was revealed to everybody how special he was,” Applewhite said. “As he got more concepts and [began to understand the] offense, you began to see he had great big play ability.”

Applewhite said part of what makes Dillard great is the little things he does to give himself an advantage over his defender — or defenders. He even compares Dillard to a couple of his former teammates at UT.

“He understands the important parts of the route that he needs to execute to leave his body in control and in position to make a play,” Applewhite said. “There’s a couple guys that I’ve been around that have those kind of ball skills when the ball’s in the air. Roy [Williams] plays for the Lions, Bo Scaife plays for the Tennessee Titans. He’s got that kind of ability to catch the ball with his hands.”

Applewhite’s comparisons of Dillard with top-flight NFL talents do not end with his former teammates — he went as far as to compare his star receiver to one of the greatest receivers to ever play professional football.

“I imagine if I was around Jerry Rice when he was in college, his approach would be very similar,” he said. “Very bright, very smart, understands the game, has an impeccable work ethic, catches the ball well, understands what the other 10 guys are doing and understands where he fits into the route concept with his spacing. He has a real keen understanding of what we want to do with the ball.”

While Dillard is loath to sing his own accolades, he understands that his greatest asset is his ability to put himself in an indefensible position from which to catch the ball.

“I have good ball awareness, knowing where to position myself on the field, how to get open, where to catch the ball and how to catch the ball,” Dillard said.

Outstanding players are often measured not only by their own successes, but their ability to improve their teammates. As defenses shift their focus to Dillard, the entire Rice offense benefits. Described by Applewhite as “the consummate team player,” Dillard’s contributions transcend coming back to the ball on stop routes and taking big hits after catches over the middle. In a 40-29 win over the University of Central Florida two weeks ago, Dillard had to fight double coverage for most of the game. The Golden Knights employed a six-defensive back “dime” set with the sole purpose of stopping Dillard. While it worked somewhat in that regard (he still caught seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown), this defensive scheme allowed redshirt senior running back Quentin Smith to run for 183 yards and three scores.

The making of a receiver

Dillard grew up in the rough part of San Antonio, on the east side, where he attended Sam Houston High School. He played sports all throughout his childhood, and as he grew older, he saw athletics as a way out of the neighborhood.

“My high school was a real rough neighborhood high school.” Dillard said. “It was play sports, maybe you get a scholarship and get out, maybe not. I know what I’m doing now my high school really prepared me for.”

Dillard’s older sister, also a graduate of Sam Houston, is a successful athlete as well. Graduating from UT in 2003, Tai Dillard played three seasons for the Silver Stars, San Antonio’s WNBA team. Upon the end of her playing career, she returned to Sam Houston to be the women’s basketball coach.

At Houston, Dillard played for a wide-open passing offense, as did Clement, who played across town at Alamo Heights High School. Though they didn’t know each other in high school, the two played against each other before a district realignment when they were sophomores. Clement, like Dillard, posted impressive high school statistics.

“I recognized [Clement] by his stats senior year, and I realized [that] he’s one of the leading quarterbacks in San Antonio,” Dillard said. “I realized whoever Chase Clement is … he’s pretty good.”

Dillard has been able to put up good numbers with both Clement and backup quarterback Joel Armstrong, but his performances have been most impressive when Clement takes the snaps. Dillard says he attributes their success this season to their seemingly endless repetitions as freshman members of the scout team.

“The only individual plays I can remember were my redshirt freshman year,” he said. “If I could get the tape back I could watch me and Chase in practice all day. I mean, that year, the things I did amazed myself. Now, the things Chase and I are doing on the field — that’s all been practiced, that’s all been done before.”

Dillard hones his receiving skills by an unorthodox method. In high school, Dillard picked up the habit of playing catch and juggling with golf balls. In college, he has continued to juggle them during down time.

“Before the games, me and the other receivers, [would throw] golf balls around to work on our hand and eye coordination, and that came along with me.” Dillard said. “Whenever I see golf balls I pick them up, throw them around, catch them, something I do just to keep my hands busy.”

While the golf ball craze hasn’t taken college football by storm, there’s no knowing whether or not it will catch on. In 2000, BYU players started drinking pickle juice before games to prevent cramps. In actuality, the pickle juice did very little, but football players from the pee-wee to the NFL were soon downing the vinegary liquid before their games.

While golf balls may cost a little more than Vlasic pickle juice, maybe an All-American award for Rice’s juggling wide receiver would boost Titleist golf ball sales around the country.

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