PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia airport terminal was lined with Eagles fans as first-round pick Andre Dillard touched down Friday. When the 6-foot-5, 315-pound specimen of an offensive tackle emerged from the jetway, sporting a fresh green Eagles cap atop his massive frame, cheers rang out and did not stop until Dillard was out of sight.
"I felt like some kind of superhero," he said.
He could be cast as one, with a size-speed combo rarely found on Earth. But this was no phone booth transformation. It took a seismic shift over time, and a lot of late-night snacking, for Dillard to turn from a self-described "wuss" into an elite NFL prospect.
Dillard was not highly recruited coming out of Washington's Woodinville High School, largely because he weighed only 240 pounds. Washington State coach Mike Leach took a chance on the local product, thinking, "Let's see if we can put some meat on this skinny kid," as Dillard put it.
He packed on 20 to 30 pounds every year at Washington State, shooting from 240 to 310 pounds -- a remarkable 70-pound gain in all. He attributes the growth to a commitment to the weight room and to chowing down, even at odd hours.
Dillard had heard that people gain a lot weight when they eat late at night. So he would set an alarm for 2 a.m. to ingest a protein shake before going back to sleep.
Between classes he would fill his backpack with snacks. "Those peanut butter and jellies in the bag" was a go-to, and he'd pile in bananas and bars as well. His dedication paid off. He ballooned to 290 by his redshirt sophomore year and was up over 300 by his junior season.
Dillard, meanwhile, was developing into one of the best left tackles in college football. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed one sack on 677 pass attempts in 2018 while playing in Leach's pass-happy Air Raid offense. His testing at the NFL scouting combine -- he ran a 4.96 40-yard dash, good for fourth best among offensive lineman, and was near the top in the broad jump, 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill -- confirmed the athletic traits that showed up on tape.
According to executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman, Dillard was the Eagles' top-ranked tackle prospect and in their top-10 overall. When he fell into their range, Philly moved up three spots to select Dillard with the No 22 pick. He is now the heir apparent to future Hall-of-Famer Jason Peters at left tackle.
"He's got great feet. Really, really smooth pass protector, long arms, big hands, great character," Roseman said. "You can see a lot of things that we do offensively [in his game]. At the same time, he's also got room to grow. He hasn't hit his ceiling."
Football didn't come naturally to Dillard, even though his dad, Mitch, is a former offensive lineman who played for Washington State in the 1980s. He gravitated more toward basketball and didn't start playing football until the eighth grade. Far behind his peers who had been playing the sport much longer, and put off by coaches whom he described as the "counterproductive, trying-to-bring-you-down type," he often contemplated quitting.
Dillard also didn't take to the physicality of the game initially.
"Well, by wuss, I meant, when I first played in eighth and ninth grade, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never hit a person before, so I didn't -- I was unsure if that was OK and it's like, 'Yeah, you have a helmet on,'" he said. "Over the years of progressively getting better at the game, I just fell in love with it more and more and just put more of my body and soul into it, and so, I've definitely gotten a lot more aggressive over the years."
His high school coaches built him up where others had knocked him down, and with his father as a guiding hand, he began to blossom. NFL scouts started coming to watch him about midway through his college career. When first alerted of this by his coaches, his response was, "Are you sure it was [for] me?" That gave him the confidence that he could make a living playing ball.
Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas pointed to Dillard's "foot quickness, his lower body flex, his ability to redirect" as attributes that drew Philly to him. Coach Doug Pederson called him a "special player."
Given that he wasn't asked to run block much in college, there are questions about how well he will be able to do that in the pros. And because he's more of a technician than a mauler, there's a school of thought that Dillard is not "mean enough."
In this respect, Dillard assured, he does have the superhero-like transformation skills.
"It's just a switch," he said. "Like people will think I'm not capable of being a mean guy on the field because I'm nice right now, but there's that switch and you've got to know when to be mean and when to be nice."