Tri-Cities Fever bring back QB Houston Lillard

March 28, 2014 

When Houston Lillard quarterbacked the Tri-Cities Fever to the team’s second consecutive United Bowl in the summer of 2012, he never thought it would be the last competitive game he’d play over the next 20 months.

And when Fever coach Adam Shackleford gave Lillard his release in the fall of 2012 — so that Lillard could find a football job at a higher level — he thought his working relationship with the QB was over.

But it turns out that Shackleford and Lillard still need each other.

The Fever announced Friday that Lillard is coming back to play for the team.

It all came to a head last Saturday night, when Tri-Cities lost 58-45 on the road to the Cedar Rapids Titans. That gave the Fever a 1-3 record.

More importantly, Shackleford was concerned with Fever starting quarterback Dante Warren’s problem of turning the football over. In the Titans game, Warren fumbled the ball away three times and tossed an interception.

“We’ve had 12 turnovers in our last three games,” Shackleford said. “I’ll be honest with you, if we were 3-1 right now but still turning the ball over that many times, I’d still make the change. It’s giving two teams 11 extra chances on offense to have the ball.”

Shackleford decided he needed to make a change, and right away.

“I called him right after the game,” said Shackleford. “I got the ball rolling. I simply offered him an opportunity to get back on the field. I think that proximity (from Portland) was an easy sell. I think the sell for us was easy when he wasn’t gonna play in Portland. If he was going to play in the (Indoor Football League) again, he made it very clear he wanted it to be with us.”

All of that struck a chord with Lillard.

“I think he called me from the arena,” said Lillard, now 27. “You’ve got to get on the field.”

The last time Lillard was on the field, he had led the Fever to the IFL title game — the United Bowl — for the second consecutive year.

He was a second-team All-IFL quarterback for both 2011 and 2012 — his only curse being that Sioux Falls Storm quarterback Chris Dixon, the MVP of the league both seasons, kept him from being first team.

After Lillard left the team, he had hoped to hook up with an Arena Football League team, or maybe a Canadian Football League franchise.

But outside of a limited AFL tryout here or there, Lillard never really got a chance.

He was in the expansion-AFL Portland Thunder’s preseason camp.

“I was there three weeks, but I just removed myself,” said Lillard. “I wasn’t on contract, but they wouldn’t cut me. I tried to use every practice to improve myself, and I had some good performances. But once I felt I was going unnoticed, it was time to leave.”

Shackleford kept tabs on Lillard from afar.

“He’s in tremendous shape,” Shackleford said. “He’s been working out with Dennis Dixon, the former Oregon Ducks quarterback. I venture to say he’s in the best shape of his life.”

Lillard said he has no regrets with his time with the Thunder.

“This year, I got an opportunity, and I took advantage of it to the best of my ability,” said Lillard. “I feel good. I feel like I’m a better passer right now.”

He said coming back to the Tri-Cities — a placed where he excelled — could be tough because it can be tough to come home again.

But after thinking about it, he felt it was the right move.

“Me having a child in the Tri-Cities, and a son in Portland, this works out,” Lillard said. “Especially with kids and family. And the fact I can actually come in and play.”

There could be an adjustment period, both agree.

“I’m gonna make it very clear to Houston what we need out of him is not trying to win games, but manage them,” said Shackleford. “At the same time, he’s been in this (offensive) system.”

Lillard will have some familiarity.

“I know the offense very well,” he said. “Me knowing that will help. I played with Jackie (Chambers) before, I’ve played with Ed (Berry) before. And Tre (Young, who was also signed this week).

“I don’t think it’ll be that much of an adjustment,” he continued. “It’s a new team and obviously I’ve got to earn some of the guys’ respect.”

So when the Fever, which is off this week with a bye, resumes practice on Monday morning, Houston Lillard will be the starting quarterback as the team prepares for an April 5 home game against the Cedar Rapids Titans.

Warren will drop back into the backup role, and Andre Broadus — who has had a knee problem since the opener against Wyoming — goes on injured reserve.

“The decision was because of ball security,” said Shaclkleford. “The decision was because Dante was not making the right reads, and he was hanging on to the first reads too long.

“It wasn’t an effort thing,” Shackleford continued. “He worked hard. The biggest thing was he put the ball on the ground eight times the last two games.”

Shackleford said Warren handled the move as a professional.

“When I have to make a decision like this, I have to remove all emotion from this,” Shackleford said. “I like Dante. I’m bringing back a man I care lot for, replacing a man I care a lot for. They mean the same to me.

“But the expectation is we win here,” Shackleford said. “And I’ll do whatever I can inside the rules to win.”

NOTES: The Fever also signed Young, who is back for a third term with the team. Young had signed two weeks ago with the Texas Revolution, but he never reported. He was released earlier this week. ... Broadus has a tear in his meniscus. ... The Fever also signed OL Lloyd Morrison Jr., and released DL Kayon Swanson and WR David Lewis. ... Former Fever OL Jason Donnal was released by Cedar Rapids on Thursday. ... Ex-Fever DB Gary Wilburn signed last week with the Bemidji Axemen.

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