When Florida takes the field for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, Cameron Dillard will be in the middle of the action.
As the Gators’ starting center, that’s his job, and it may appear he’s doing it calmly when he looks across the line at Michigan.
Inside, though, the Canton native will be motivated.
“He’s going to be fired up, no question,” said Canton coach Tim Baechler, who coached Dillard in high school. “He’s not fired up verbally. He’s laid-back. But inside his helmet, he’ll be in a rage, a controlled rage.”
It’s a four-year fury for Dillard, who grew up 20 miles from Michigan Stadium but never drew any real interest from the Wolverines.
Michigan and Notre Dame were looking for a number, and at 6-feet-3, Dillard wasn’t tall enough to be their center. Michigan State showed some interest, but that changed during the process. Regardless of the reason, there were never any scholarship offers from those schools for the 2011 Free Press All-State Dream Team pick.
He had nibbles from smaller schools, and when Oregon offered, the three-star recruit drew more interest.
“I used to train with Lomas Brown, a former Gator great,” Dillard said of the longtime Lion. “He got me in connection with the right coaches down here.”
For the Gators under then-coach Will Muschamp, it was a good fit.
But Dillard had to be patient. Each of his first two years, Florida had a talented, All-SEC caliber center. His first year, Jonotthan Harrison, now the starting center for the Indianapolis Colts, had the job. Last year’s starter, Max Garcia, is now a guard for the Denver Broncos.
So Dillard put on weight, growing from 285 pounds in high school to nearly 325 now. He prepared to take the job at the first opportunity.
Now he may not give it up after starting the first 11 games this year. A leg injury kept him out of the final two games, but he’s headed for another start in the bowl.
“It’s pretty exciting to see the guys ahead of me being successful,” he said. “Just hopefully I can continue to work hard and make things happen.”
Dillard performed well throughout the season, standing up against some of the nation’s best defensive fronts in the SEC.
Getting that chance under an offensive-minded coach this year in Jim McElwain has helped Dillard tremendously.
“He emphasizes leadership,” Dillard said. “We knew (AD Jeremy) Foley would make the right decision for us and get the program back on track where it should be. We just had faith and continued to work hard.”
Dillard was already used to adjustment, having switched offensive line coaches the year before.
“(McElwain) had been the offensive coordinator at Alabama at one point, so he carries a lot of credibility with him,” Baechler said. “Offensive line guys and (O-line) coaches are unique guys, and they kind gravitate toward each other. He liked the guy right away, and then the guy believed in him, so Cam’s got his back — him and the head coach.”
The Gators have won 10 games under McElwain after winning seven under Muschamp last season. Dillard can feel the difference throughout the program.
That’s what Baechler hears when Dillard texts him regularly throughout the season, maintaining a close bond. It stems back to high school, when Dillard became closer to the coach than most players, heading to Baechler’s house for dinner and to play games with his young son, Lou, who still reaches out to Dillard.
Baechler remembers a game against Plymouth during Dillard’s senior year, when Plymouth had a defensive player heading to Buffalo.
“The first series, Cam drove him into our sideline and dumped him on his back and landed on him,” Baechler said. “He got a 15-yard penalty, (and) I didn’t care. It was a great block. … A D-1 kid? How dare you line up against me? You’re going to Buffalo, I’m going to Florida and this is why.”
Even though Dillard has a few close high school friends playing for the Wolverines — he called and texted with U-M’s David Dawson and Wyatt Shallman after the bowl announcement — the U-M defensive linemen are likely to draw his wrath.
“Coming into college, we always talked about how cool would that be if we played each other,” Dillard said. “It’s kind of a small world now that we’re playing them Jan. 1.”
And that slight from more than four years ago?
“Two in-state schools — one I’m 20 minutes from, the other I’m an hour away from — didn’t want me to play for them,” he said. “So yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder. … That’s immediately my thought going to play one of them.”
Matchup: No. 14 Michigan (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. No. 19 Florida (10-3, 7-1 SEC).
When: 1 p.m. Friday.
Where: Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando.
TV: ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit).
Line: Wolverines by 4.