Former Woodinville lineman Andre Dillard (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)
Back when I covered Andre Dillard during his Woodinville Falcon days, he weighed 240 pounds. But after five years at Washington State followed by one season with the Philadelphia Eagles, he now registers at 6’5” tall and 315 pounds.
The big man is back home in Woodinville, resting after his rookie season. We spoke a few days ago. But before talking about life in the NFL, Dillard responded to the recent news that Mike Leach, his old coach at WSU, had bolted for Mississippi State.
“I had no idea that he would leave,” Dillard said. “He struck me as a guy who hated change. You could tell by the offense he ran. But I was really happy to hear that news because the boys back there needed a change.”
Dillard played for Leach at WSU from 2014-2018, before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. But when pressed for details, Dillard was forthcoming.
“Mike Leach isn't exactly a coach that you'd like to play for,” Dillard said. “He's just one of those guys who get results. But the way he gets results is frowned upon by the players. He never gave off any vibe that he cared about his players on a personal level. Playing for him felt a little bit like a dictatorship.”
Mike Leach rants have always been comedic fodder for fans and media alike. While at Texas Tech, he once blamed a loss on his players for listening too much to their ‘fat little girlfriends”. While at WSU, he complained with colorful language about his players not being good enough.
“It personally bothered me,” Dillard said. “What kind of coach throws his entire team under the bus when things go wrong? But he never put any blame on himself. Calling players out. Calling them fat and slow and saying he needs new players. He did that several times when I was there. it just wasn't good leadership.”
When asked for a specific example, Dillard cited a 2016 loss against Boise State.
“He compared us to a junior college women's softball team,” Dillard said. “I was like `Dude, you need to chill out.’ The guys were offended by that.
“Anyway, I’m just happy that he has moved on,” Dillard said. “But I do appreciate him giving me the opportunity to play there [at WSU].”
On the other hand, pro football has proven to be a different world. Dillard was taken in the first round of last year's NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He had gone from the vineyards of Woodinville, to the wheat fields of the Palouse, to the City of Brotherly Love – where fans have booed Santa Claus and thrown batteries at players.
“Yeah, the fans can love you one moment and hate you the next,” Dillard said. “It was an amazing learning experience for me. It was just like being a freshman in college. Going in there wide-eyed and not knowing the routine. You don't know the schedule very well or how the practices go. But you learn and fall in line and get used to the way things go.”
The lowest point in his rookie campaign came during a November 24 loss to Seattle. For the first time in his life, he started at right tackle – and it proved a disaster. He was benched at halftime and replaced by Halapoulivaati Vaitai. When the media questioned Dillard about it, he confessed to feeling overwhelmed by playing the new position. Much criticism came his way after that quote.
“I don't dwell on it at all,” Dillard said. “I did my best given the situation. Being thrown in a spot that I had never trained at in my whole life, until that week. I had 2-3 practices and then had to go out there. The muscle memory just wasn't there... But I'm not tripping it, it is something I learned from.”
Later in the season, Dillard redeemed himself. He started three games at left tackle against the Bills, Bears and Cowboys. Those games ended up being the top rushing performances for Philly on the year. Dillard graded out well.
“It was a good opportunity to get my feet in the water,” Dillard said. “And I really feel like I held my own at left tackle, and I had a good time out there.”
He gave much credit to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.
“He's just, hands-down, one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life,” Dillard said. “The dude is just a good, wholesome person, and that's really what I like about him. He's a fantastic leader and he wants to establish a good relationship with everyone in the organization. He's fully on board, fully dedicated, and a super-hard worker.”
Early in the 2019 season, the Eagles were playing Atlanta. Dillard was sent into the game. It was to be his first regular season action as a rookie.
“I went in there for one play on third down,” Dillard said. “Carson looked at me in the huddle and said `You were made for this. I believe in you!’
“Going forward, he said several times, `You were made for this, I believe in you.’ That meant a lot to me coming from a veteran player and leader of the team. It was nice to know that the older guys had my back. His words resonated in my head every series.”
And despite the Philly fan base being a tough nut to crack, Dillard found they could have his back, too.
“During training camp, we had this event for the Eagles Autism Challenge,” Dillard said. “They had a bunch of rookies standing beneath a tent. Fans came through and took pictures with us. One fan came through and he was wearing an Optimus Prime mask, but with Philadelphia colors on it. I saw it and said `Yo, that's the sickest thing I've ever seen!’ He said he would make me one. We left it at that.
“But then on Instagram, I saw this guy wearing this same mask, following me [on Instagram]. He said he was making me one and was going to bring it to me at the open practice. I was like super excited. I was thinking, `That's pretty cool. This guy is obviously pretty talented artistically.’
“So we have the open practice, and back toward the locker room, I see him poking out from the crowd, holding up the mask high in the air. A silver-colored mask with decals and stuff. He reached down and handed it to me. He shouted `Take care of it!’ And I said, `For sure, brother!’
“Then I got back on the team bus, and everyone was like, `Yo that is pretty cool, where did you get?’
“And I still keep in touch with that guy a little bit,” Dillard said. “We message back-and-forth.”