One year ago, Jarett Dillard reported to training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a fifth round draft pick with a bundle of college records and a commitment to answer the questions from professional evaluators that caused him last so late in the NFL Draft.
On Friday, Dillard will step on to the same turf at the Jags Training Center, looking to again unleash the unique set of skills he was only beginning to showcase last season before a suffering a season-ending injury in the ninth game of the season.
It was one of life's cruel twists. Dillard had just begun to prove himself in NFL action, showcasing the same magical ability to fly just a little higher, stretch a little further, pull down a seemingly overthrown pass and turn it into positive yardage for the Jags. After being inactive the first two weeks of the season, he made his first appearance on an NFL field on the same chunk of real estate where he brought his Rice career to a close, Reliant Stadium in Houston.
One week later he registered his first career catch, a 14-yard grab against Tennessee and over the next five weeks, he chalked up five more catches, the longest of which was 33-yarder against Kansas City. He was making an impression and becoming more and more of an option for Jags quarterback David Garrard, but that momentum came to a crashing halt just one week later.
Dillard hauled in a seven-yard completion against the New York Jets on November 15, but suffered an injury to his ankle when tackled and two days later he was placed on the injured reserve list, bringing his rookie year to a close.
"After I made a couple catches, I started to get more and more playing time. I was starting to come in on third downs and things were really happening for me. It was the wrong time to get injured," Dillard recalled.
With his rookie season prematurely concluded, Dillard faced an off-season filled with rehab for the first time in career. For the man who made a name for himself utilizing his 42" vertical leap to soar past defenders and once proclaimed in the heat of battle that during a game he played as if he was 11' 5", the prospect of any kind of leg injury might have been frightening.
But before he could even begin to ponder too heavily on the opportunity lost on the turf at Giants Stadium, he received a shot in the arm in the form of a visit by Garrard and Jags Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter to his apartment.
"They wanted me to know to keep my head up," Dillard recalled. "They wanted me to know I was not falling behind the others and that I would pick up where I left when I was healthy. That was amazing to have the starting quarterback and the OC take the time to come see me. That really put my mind at ease and made it easier to concentrate on my rehab," he added.
Dillard passed through his initial tests during OTAs with flying colors, and heads into his second year with the Jags in position to become a regular target for Garrard.
"I am much more comfortable heading into this camp, knowing that I have a place on the team," Dillard said. "The confidence I have comes from the experiences I had on the field last year and the work I put in during the spring. But I also know that I can't take anything for granted. The thing about NFL camp is the competition is intense in every drill and every play. No one can afford to take any reps off," he said.
While Dillard's focus will be squarely on his efforts in Jaguars camp, he'll also be keeping tabs on his former college triggerman, Chase Clement, who will be embarking on his own pursuit of professional playing time with the Las Vegas Locos of the UFL. It was no surprise to Dillard that Clement will soon pull a helmet back on and start throwing passes to receivers.
"I talk to Chase at least every week or two," Dillard said. "I knew that he was excited about the chance to come back to Rice (as the Owls Offensive Quality Control Assistant), but I didn't think he really could walk away from the field just yet. I knew how badly he wanted to prove that he could play professionally," he added.
Dillard was also excited to learn that the man who coached him for two seasons, David Beaty, had returned to Rice as the Owls new Offensive Coordinator. Beaty had mentored Dillard during his breakout sophomore year when he set an NCAA record with touchdown catches in 13 consecutive games while sparking the Owls to their first bowl game in 45 years.
"You could see then that he had great ideas and knew so much about offense and different schemes. I thought it was great for Rice that he decided to come back. He pushed us hard as receivers and I know he will push the entire offense to play fast and be aggressive. It will be fun to watch," Dillard predicted.