The off-season has a different meaning to Jarett Dillard this time around.
A third-year wide receiver for the Jaguars, Dillard approaches the off-season as many NFL players do – with the idea of improving, of increasing his role and of solidifying a roster spot – but for him, the off-season can&39;t help but be seen from a different perspective.
It has, after all, been going on for a while.
That&39;s because for Dillard, the off-season began early last season, when he sustained a season-ending foot injury. That has made for a long off-season.
Too long, as he sees it.
"It&39;s been a tough road, but it&39;s part of the game," Dillard told jaguars.com recently. "It&39;s been a life lesson for me. I&39;ve had to persevere, but everything that has happened and taken place has made me stronger. It&39;s made me stronger-willed and stronger-minded.
"It&39;s hard watching your team play when you're standing on the sideline."
Dillard, a fifth-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft from Rice University, played seven games as a rookie, and during that time, he impressed the Jaguars, who see him as potentially a key contributor in a young, improving wide receiving corps.
Dillard saw it that way, too, and entered the 2010 season with high aspirations, but after missing much of training camp with a foot injury, he was placed on injured reserve two days before the regular-season opener.
But while Dillard missed his second NFL season – considered by many a critical time for the growth of a young player – he said he saw enough on film as a rookie to have confidence moving forward.
"When I got on the field, I got that confidence, &39;You belong here,&39;&39;&39; Dillard said. "I was talking to (Jaguars wide receiver) Mike Thomas before I got hurt and we were saying, &39;The only thing we have to do is stay healthy.&39; That&39;s pretty much the goal of every player in the NFL: stay healthy, and produce when you have the opportunity."
Dillard said while he couldn&39;t participate on the field, he learned throughout the 2010 season. Yes, part of that learning came from other receivers, but he also learned from another source.
That source: Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.
"Everything he went through last season, with all the criticism he took and all the praise he got . . ." Dillard said of Garrard. "He had a great season and I just learned how he stayed on the straight and narrow. He stayed very consistent and just watching that from the outside in was impressive. When they were saying great things, he kept calm and when they said bad things about him, he kept calm. He kept that vibe and was a strength of the team.
"That&39;s one thing I&39;ve learned, that you can&39;t get too down on yourself. I was injured and couldn&39;t play, but I couldn&39;t get too down. I had to stay consistent and had to stay strong and persevere through the hard times."
There is a disconnect any injured player feels in the NFL, or with any team in any sport. Though players remain near the team, it&39;s hard to feel like you&39;re part of the team on the sideline. Dillard, who was placed on injured reserve in November of his rookie season with an ankle injury, said those feelings are real, but said the key is finding a way to be productive during such a season.
"It&39;s just part of the process," Dillard said. "Every year on every team, there&39;s a guy who gets hurt. I never thought it would be me, but it&39;s part of every organization – in college, high school and the NFL. There&39;s always a guy. Guys get hurt. It&39;s the nature of the game.
"You hope it&39;s not you. You pray it&39;s not you. But you can&39;t control what it is."
Dillard, who caught six passes for 107 yards as a rookie, said as he prepares for the 2011 season his goal is obvious. With his first two seasons drastically reduced or eliminated, being able to play the entire season is critical to his development, and he said that remains a primary objective.
"I want to contribute to the team, and we want to do more than what we&39;ve done," Dillard said. "We don&39;t want to just go to the playoffs, we want to go far in the playoffs. I want to go far and contend for a championship, contend for the Super Bowl. I want to be a team where toward the end of the year people are saying, &39;Oh, the Jaguars – you have to watch out for those guys.&39;
"Even though I didn&39;t contribute to the team, I wasn&39;t happy in the off-season knowing how our season ended. I watched all the playoffs, all the championship games, then I watched the Super Bowl. We have the talent. We have the talent and potential, but we have to get over that hump.
"I want to be able to contribute, get us over that hump and do everything I know I can do for the Jacksonville Jaguars."
And as Dillard sees it, considering how long he has waited – and considering the length of what to him has been a decidedly extended off-season – getting a chance to do that can&39;t come fast enough.
"This has been a long off-season," Dillard said. "I&39;ve just been focused on keeping my body healthy, and maintaining my strength. I&39;m trying to do everything I can so I can produce on the field and in OTAs. I think I&39;ve done a good job doing what I&39;ve been doing.
"I focused on keeping my mind right so when I get my opportunity to play I&39;ll be ready."