In several years’ time, Andre Dillard went from hating football to setting his alarm for 2 a.m. protein shakes.
His future as an NFL first-round draft pick may have seemed almost preordained. His father similarly played tackle at Washington State. And the younger Dillard had the height and athletic requirements to play at the highest level. But he forged his own Emersonian path, despite the aid he received from others, to excellence in football.
“I’ve always just had this thing about me where I like to finish what I started,” Dillard said Friday. “I don’t ever want to leave anything with regrets, and I just really kept trusting it.”
The Eagles, who selected Dillard with the 22nd overall pick Thursday, are trusting that his ambition will make him their next great left tackle. Most of what executives Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas and head coach Doug Pederson had to say about their top draft initially after the pick centered on his outward abilities. But it’s clear, especially after hearing Dillard talk, that his character factored significantly into their decision.
Douglas said that Anthony Patch, the Eagles’ senior director of college scouting, had the advantage of getting to know Dillard because he lives near Washington State’s Pullman campus, and that West Coast scout Ryan Myers dug in on his background, as well. But a meeting at the Senior Bowl in January and a phone conversation with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland two weeks ago sealed the deal.
“We were very comfortable,” Douglas said. “We got a chance to spend a lot of time with Andre in our Senior Bowl interview. He had a great week, and we couldn’t be more excited to have him.”
Dillard may be on the older side – he turns 24 October – and he may have initially fallen into football, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason to think he’s Danny Watkins 2.0. The road he traversed from a self-described “wuss” in eighth grade football to the presumptive heir to Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters is laden with anecdotes of his determination.
But it took some nudging from his father, Mitch – Dillard said he was pushed into football “in a way” -- to play and to stay with it despite various setbacks.
“He was always supportive of what I did in my life. But if I did ever feel like giving up on something, you know, he would kind of step in and be like, ‘Hey, you know, you don’t want to live life with any regrets,’” Dillard said during his introductory news conference at the NovaCare Complex. “That’s kind of where I got that finish-what-you-started thing.”
The 6-foot-5 Dillard said basketball was his first love. He figured it was his best path to success. Football didn’t come easy. He recalled being unsure of whether he could hit an opponent. His genial demeanor and relative lack of run blocking in college still has others questioning if he can play with an edge.
“People would think I’m not capable of being a mean guy on the field because I’m nice right now,” Dillard said. “But there’s that switch that you got to know when to be mean and when to be nice.”
Dillard said graduating from junior high to senior high school flipped the football light on. He said he went from playing for coaches who were the “counterproductive, trying-to-bring-you-down type” to coaches at Woodinville in Washington who used positive reinforcement.
“They … took me under their wing and that gave me a boost and they really were patient and worked with me,” Dillard said.
He developed into one of the better offensive linemen in the Seattle area and received some interest from smaller colleges, but Division I-A programs stayed away because he weighed only 240 pounds. But Washington State took a flyer partly because of his father, but also because they saw potential if they could “put some meat on this skinny kid,” as Dillard said.
Despite some early struggles with weight gain because of his metabolism, Dillard gained 20 pounds or so in each of his first two years. By his sophomore season he weighed 290, as a junior 305, and finally 310 in his last season.
“I just lived in the weight room, really,” Dillard said. “I’d go between class and fill my backpack up with snacks. I’d eat late at night because apparently that’s how people gain weight a lot. I would set an alarm for two in the morning and drink a protein shake and go back to sleep.”
By his junior year, Dillard was starting at left tackle. He said he started to study film of some of the NFL’s best blockers like the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith, the Redskins’ Trent Williams, and Peters. It wasn’t too long until pro scouts started coming around the Cougars program and asking about him.
“I was kind of surprised. I was like, ‘Are you sure it was me?'” said Dillard, who already has his degree in social science. “That gave me some confidence, and then as the words started coming in more and more about NFL this, scouts this, it kind of just clicked in my head like, ‘Hey, you know, I can do this,’ and I started comparing myself to NFL players or just players that I played with that are in the NFL now.”
Dillard allowed only one sack his senior season – to Utah’s Bradlee Anae -- despite quarterback Gardner Minshew dropping more than 700 times in coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense. He said the memory haunts him.
“My weight was kind of forward and my hands weren’t all the way inside on that particular play, and so he kind of just got a hold of my shoulder and kind of pulled me down forward and went inside,” Dillard said. “I’ll always remember that play.”
Because the Cougars ran little there are questions about Dillard’s ability to run block in the NFL.
“There hasn’t been much film of that,” he said. “I haven’t been asked to do that a lot but since the end of college. I’ve been working a lot on that part of the game and I’m going to continue to do that.”
It’s hard to doubt he won’t excel once he puts his mind to it.