When the Eagles practice, in training camp or otherwise, the offense wears green jerseys and the defense wears white. As Woodlinville, Wash., High offensive line coach Mike Monan watched drills Thursday at NovaCare, Monan recalled another preseason practice day, and a team with both green and white jerseys.
At Woodlinville High, near Seattle, the junior varsity practices in green, the varsity Falcons in white. Monan once had this tall, skinny sophomore named Andre Dillard, who was incredibly athletic but unsure of himself. He hadn’t played much football, preferring basketball instead.
“He thought he was a basketball player, but he wasn’t too good at it. At first he just wasn’t really too fond of [football]. He’d want to be down with the other 10th graders on the other side of the field, and I had him up here with the varsity kids,” Monan said. “Then, boom, something clicked in his head. We got rid of his green jersey and gave him a white jersey. He fit in from that point on. Never looked back.”
Monan said that after he got to know Dillard, who is now the Eagles’ first-round rookie left tackle, he understood that Dillard was a perfectionist, uncomfortable in situations where he felt wasn’t doing well. Monan and Woodlinville head coach Wayne Maxwell – who also is visiting Dillard this week – realized that Dillard needed to feel part of the group, to feel accepted by his teammates.
“When he first came up [to the varsity] he was very worried about, ‘Hey, I’m not doing good. I’m not doing this, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.' … He wasn’t feeling a part of the team,” Monan said.
Monan said he made a ceremony of giving Dillard the varsity jersey, marking it as a rite of passage, and it worked.
“Once he feels a part of something, he just doesn’t let go,” Monan said.
Even after Dillard bought in and began to develop, Monan and Maxwell said, they didn’t envision being Dillard’s guests at an NFL training camp. They set their sights on getting him a college scholarship, which wasn’t easy, given that he still hadn’t filled out.
“He weighed about a buck 95 as a sophomore. … He just made himself into this, where he is today,” Monan said. “Hardworking kid.”
Dillard, now listed at 6-5, 315, said every day in ninth grade PE class, Maxwell would bug him about coming out for football. “Finally I just said, ‘Fine, all right, I’ll do it.’ ”
Why does Dillard think Maxwell kept after him to play?
“I don’t really know, honestly. I think he just saw my lanky frame. I’d just hit my growth spurt that year. I think he knew I was pretty athletic,” said Dillard, whose father, Mitch, preceded him as an offensive lineman at Washington State, in the 1980s. “He just knows football does a lot of great things for people. I guess he felt I had a future in it.”
That, and, Maxwell is an evangelist for the benefits of high school football, which is a hard thing to be today. For many parents, news of football’s links to devastating long-term concussion effects outweighs all other considerations.
“I think it’s just what the football culture is all about. You hear these days with younger kids, not as many getting involved with football. People don’t know what you get out of it. It does tremendous things for young men and women,” Maxwell said. “He got a part of that culture at the high school and he ate it up. Loved it, loved his brothers, loved the coaches and just the whole environment it can give you. … He found his thing.”
Dillard gave a similar assessment.
“I just kind of found that camaraderie that you build with your teammates as you go through the grind. … Some little things just flipped for me here and there. … I became a much better player and started loving it.”
A week into Eagles training camp, what you notice most is Dillard’s smoothness. In one-on-one drills, he seems to glide along in front of the pass-rusher, walling him off from the quarterback, sliding like a glass door.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh agreed that smooth was the word for Dillard. Groh said Dillard “has done a really good job of just coming in here, he’s steady, he’s working hard every day, and you can see him kind of settling in, and getting more and more comfortable and confident each day.”
Dillard smiles at hearing smooth used to describe him. That still isn’t how he sees himself, having come to football so late and fought desperately to gain enough weight to get on the field at Washington State after showing up there with a tight end’s build.
“The quickness I’ve probably just naturally had. But for a lot of years in my career, I’ve been kind of like a baby deer, just kind of all over the place,” Dillard said.
He got some first-team reps Wednesday and did not look deer-like, stepping in while 37-year-old left tackle Jason Peters took a breather.
Dillard said of his first training camp: “It’s partly what I thought it would be and also not, just because I’d never experienced it. You never fully understand it until you go through it. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a huge grind, there’s a lot to do every single day, but it’s all worth it, it’s all good work.”
The thing Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland corrects him on the most, he said, is “angles.”
“That’s probably the biggest thing in everything he teaches us, is just that it all leads back to the angle you take on each play,” Dillard said.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked Thursday about players who have stood out on film review. Dillard got a mention.