Fever QB Lillard returns in top shape

By Jeff Morrow, Tri-City Herald sports editor February 24, 2012 

KENNEWICK -- Houston Lillard's first love is basketball.

In Oakland, Calif., during high school, he averaged 18-20 points a game as a shooting guard.

"And I averaged 30 points in AAU," he said.

Lillard went to junior college to play basketball, but the school's football coach convinced the young man to turn out for the football team first.

"We went to a bowl game that season, and before I even got to suit up for a basketball game, our team was 10-0," he said. "I didn't get to play much. I had to go the football route because I didn't want to sit the bench."

Instead, the 25-year-old sits in front of the television on Weber State University game nights and watches little brother Damian tear it up. Damian is so good that he's projected to be a first-round draft pick in the NBA this year.

Houston couldn't be happier for him.

"Basketball is my first sport," he said. "All my life, I've played with him. To see him excel, I'm so happy. I'm overjoyed. Jealousy? I love my brother as much as he loves me. Jealousy could never be a factor in our life."

Besides, Houston Lillard has a little bit of success going his way in the football world.

Last year, Lillard quarterbacked the Tri-Cities Fever to the United Bowl, the Indoor Football League's championship game. He passed for 3,291 yards with 87 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions, as the team went 13-5 and finished second to Sioux Falls. For his part, Lillard was a second-team All-IFL selection.

He has earned the respect.

"I think he's a good quarterback," said Everett Raptors coach Sean Ponder. "He does a lot well, and he doesn't make mistakes. He's a lot more mobile than people think. It's not hard to see why he's had the success he's had."

On Saturday night, the Fever opens the 2012 IFL season against the Raptors at the Toyota Center.

Lillard is back as the team's starting quarterback, and he has just one goal this season, stressed many times over.

"I want to win. I want to win. I want to win. And I want to win," he said. "Everyone asks me if I want to win the MVP award. It's all surreal. I never imagined I'd play football this long. I just want to win. I want to get back to the big game."

To do that, Lillard got even more serious in the offseason. He stayed in the Tri-Cities, got a job working at Texas Roadhouse ... and he trained.

Fever wide receiver Steven Whitehead, who owns Elite Ambitions Training, is his trainer.

"Steven worked Houston so hard they

wouldn't speak for days at a time," said Fever coach Adam Shackleford.

"I didn't necessarily get him mad at me," Whitehead said. "He knew it was for his benefit. He came in heavy last year coming off an ACL injury. In college, he never rehabbed his injury. It just shows you how gritty and tough he is the way he played last year."

Whitehead got him to drop 18 pounds in the offseason.

"He's gotten a lot faster," Whitehead said. "He's worked on his speed and feet. Houston pushes 300 pounds across the chest (on a bench press). He's a strong kid. Even last year, he was shrugging off tackles."

And he's a smarter quarterback.

"Mentally, I'm way farther ahead this year," Lillard said. "The first year (2010), I got thrown into the fire when (regular starter) Andy (Collins) got hurt. Last year when I got to camp, I didn't really know what was going on. I wasn't a student of the game."

Over the last year, though, Lillard has put in the time in the film room.

Shackleford had the perfect example.

"The other night, we watched film from 2010 to watch coverages," Shackleford said. "You saw a rookie making some mistakes. Then we threw in the Allen game from last year (the Intense Conference championship) and you see a guy who did not make any mistakes. He hit the receiver he was supposed to. He threw it out of bounds when he needed to."

Shackleford needs that guy to lead his team this season.

"This is a quarterback-driven league," he said. "Most teams that have a veteran quarterback has an edge. The thing that will make me happiest this year is our quarterback believing he doesn't have to do it all by himself.

"We're not gonna sneak up on anybody anymore," Shackleford continued. "The days of Tri-Cities being a sub-par team are over."

That means defenses will try to take away the pass.

"And I understand that," Lillard said. "The one thing I realize I need is to be more dynamic with my legs. Last year one team dropped their defensive lineman back in coverage. They used one rusher, and I was trying to find the perfect passing lane. Teams wanted me to run."

This year, they might get that wish.

"And I am anxious to see what happens," said Whitehead. "He's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever been around. He's also one of the most humble guys I have ever played with."

Shackleford likes that in his quarterback.

"He's even-keeled. He's never too low, never too high," the coach said. "He likes throwing touchdowns, but he's the first one to tell me, 'Coach, we need to run the football here.' He's cool under pressure. And he wants the ball in pressure situations."

He will be the guy to lead the Fever once again.

"Houston is not overly vocal," said Shackleford. "But he gets on guys when he needs to. Young men today don't respect the yeller in the locker room. They respect the doer. Really, that's the leader these days."

That's Lillard. That's his family.

"I'm like my brother. We're the same," said Houston. "We don't really talk too much. We learned that from our dad. Our dad says we gotta show people, that we need to make us earn people's respect."

Mission accomplished, Houston Lillard.

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