Coach Adam Shackleford always has made sure Houston Lillard knows he has a place to play football: in the Tri-Cities.
On Thursday, the 25-year-old quarterback took Shackleford up on that offer and signed a contract with the Tri-Cities Fever, ensuring that the team's de facto MVP from the 2011 season would be back in the fold.
Lillard passed for 2,517 yards during the regular season with 68 touchdown passes and just 15 interceptions.
He also led the Fever to a 13-5 record, and to the United Bowl -- the Indoor Football League's championship contest, in which the Fever lost to the Sioux Falls Storm 37-10.
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Lillard's plan was to try to move up the football ladder after last season: to the NFL, CFL or Arena Football League.
He got a couple of tryout offers from AFL teams, but he never felt as though he got a fair shake.
"I had two workouts scheduled for the same day, one with the Utah Blaze and the other with the Iowa Barnstormers," Lillard said. "I picked Utah since my little brother goes to Weber State and I could see him. But after that, things went dry. I wasn't getting a lot of calls.
"I told coach after Thanksgiving that I would probably want to play here again," he continued. "Then I started getting calls again (from San Jose and Pittsburgh of the AFL). But I just felt like they wanted a body in camp."
At 6 feet, 210 pounds, Lillard has a lot in common with Sioux Falls' Chris Dixon, the 6-0, 200-pounder who has been the IFL's top quarterback the past few years.
"I talked to Chris about that," Lillard said. "He said he got some opportunities (to move up), but they were just to be bodies in camp. Obviously I want to move up. But apparently (to the AFL), size is a problem."
Shackleford believes that's wrong.
"There's a stigma in the AFL to trying to find NFL-type guys, the 6-4 quarterback," the Fever coach said. "I've always been caught up in production."
Unfortunately, Shackleford might be in the minority on that.
"I've wanted guys who take care of the football," Shackleford said. "Houston does that. Just look at his touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio."
Lillard called his offseason a learning experience.
"What I've learned in the AFL is that they go off of experience," Lillard said. "I've only had the one full season under my belt. And I just signed a contract today. Now I can't play in the AFL."
AFL rules stipulate that if a player signs a contract in another league, that player cannot perform in the AFL that season.
And for now, that's OK with Lillard and Shackleford.
"Shack let me know that I've always got a place here," Lillard said. "I want to get a championship."
-- With Lillard's signing, seven returning players from last season are on the 2012 roster: Lillard, running back Dennis Kennedy, defensive lineman Jake Killeen, defensive back Lionell Singleton, wide receiver Giovanni Stanley, and linebackers Joe Thornton and Brandon Wilson.
Lillard, Killeen, Wilson, Singleton and Kennedy have made the Tri-Cities their offseason home.
"We've been here since the season ended," Lillard said.
Another former player, wide receiver Steven Whitehead, is living in the Tri-Cities and training Lillard.
Lillard said he's trying to convince Whitehead to come back out for the 2012 season.
Shackleford said he plans on bringing two more quarterbacks into camp, but he expects Lillard to be the starter when the season begins. ... The first day of training camp will be Feb. 11. ... Shackleford will bring 40 players into camp, but he must cut the roster to 25 before the season starts. Last season, the league allowed teams to carry 30 players. But to save costs, each team is only allowed 25 players this coming season. ... The Fever plans on holding a tryout camp some time in January. ... Shackleford expects his two assistants, defensive coordinator Ryan Lingenfelder and special teams coach Cleveland Pratt, to return for 2012.