In their five years together at Rice, Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard have developed a chemistry that borders on ESP. The quarterback and receiver seem to anticipate exactly what the other is going to do, before they do it.
"They're checking routes at the line without even signaling, it's just a nod like 'Hey, do you see what I see?' 'Yeah, I see what you see,' " Owls offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
That connection, forged through countless hours spent throwing the ball outside of practice and back home in San Antonio during breaks, has helped this pair of fifth-year seniors rewrite school, conference and national records. Dillard owns the NCAA's career mark for touchdown receptions (57) and together they have the most touchdown connections for a quarterback-receiver tandem in Division I-A history (48).
But there is something these two still can't get on the same page when it comes to one thing: their first meeting eight years ago.
The way Clement remembers it, he led his Alamo Heights High School (San Antonio) freshman team on a 75-yard, game-winning drive against Sam Houston H.S. "I threw a Hail Mary and we got tackled at the three and the clock stopped and they moved the chains and all that and we were able to run one play," Clement said.
But Dillard, who stood watching on the opposing sideline, remembers it far differently.
"We didn't have a play clock on the freshman field, so the clock was by the ref's wrist watch, so we don't know how we kept the time," he said. "I don't know if you can drive down the field 75 yards in 15 seconds, I just don't know if that's possible."
"I have video proof," Clement said laughing. "That's what I always tell him."
There's no debating that Clement and Dillard have done pretty well for themselves at Rice, especially when you consider that they were recruited to run the triple-option.
"You don't come into school thinking you're going to do what you're going to do," said Dillard. "You have your hopes and dreams, but what we've both accomplished is just phenomenal."
Despite productive high school careers, Clement and Dillard didn't draw much interest from Division I-A schools. The only full scholarship offer either received came from Rice and coach Ken Hatfield, who featured an offense that ran the ball 85 percent of the time. That lack of attention has been a point of motivation for the duo.
"Every team I play against my whole life in college I walk around with a chip on my shoulder, you know, 'This is what you missed out on,' " Dillard said. "[Clement and I] walk around with that chip and that gives us our driving force to play even better."
They initially began taking out those frustrations on their own teammates. Clement and Dillard enrolled at Rice in 2004 and played on the scout team during a redshirt season. They often ran offenses that played to their strengths -- and they proved it by continually dominating the first-team defense.
"We'll run Hawaii's offense or teams like that that throw the ball and we had opportunities to throw the ball a lot, so [Dillard] and I, they would be furious with us because they would always tell us, 'Hey, build up the defense's confidence. Throw an interception. Drop the ball,' " Clement said. "Of course, J.D. and I, our mentality is, 'If they're going to pick me off, they're going to have to earn it. If they're going to knock a pass away, they're going to have to play good defense.' "
A year later they finally got to wreak havoc on someone in a different uniform, connecting on four touchdowns as redshirt freshmen. But their breakout season came after Hatfield's departure. In coach Todd Graham's only season in Houston (before he left for Tulsa), Clement and Rice combined on 14 touchdowns. This success continued with another coaching change, as they had 14 more TDs when David Bailiff took over in 2007. Playing for three different coaches and within three different offenses hasn't affected their productivity, but it has made for at least one moment of confusion.
A year ago at Texas, they were playing in front of a raucous Austin crowd, when Clement looked at Dillard and flashed him a hand signal. Dillard recognized the signal, but he just couldn't remember when it was from or what it meant. "We've had so many coaches, so many offenses, I was just kind of like 'What are you calling? What is that?' " Dillard said. "I have no idea whether to run a route or block or if he's actually changing the play."
Turns out Clement was trying to deke the defense with a dummy signal, unintentionally confusing his teammate in the process. "That was a signal that we had with Hatfield and it was something that (Dillard) had seen me do before," Clement said. "I sold it really well."
In their second season in under Bailiff and Herman, Clement (3,116 passing yards, 32 TDs and six interceptions) and Dillard (69 receptions for 1,093 yards and 17 scores) clearly aren't crossing signals. They have totaled 16 TDs together, including three in a 77-20 win over North Texas on Sept. 27 to break the NCAA record of 39 career scoring connections shared by Louisiana Tech's Tim Rattay and Troy Edwards and Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Davone Bess. Along with his career TD receptions mark, Dillard, who is projected as a sixth-round pick in April's draft by NFLDraftScout.com, is also the 13th player in NCAA history to top 1,000 yards receiving in three straight seasons. Clement, who isn't expected to be drafted, owns the Conference USA record for career touchdown passes (87) and is tied for the C-USA mark for total career TDs (96).
"[Having them] has certainly made my life as a play-caller and an offensive coach easier," Herman said. "I might actually have to do a little coaching next year."
But before Clement and Dillard leave Rice, they'll put another indelible mark on the program -- leading the Owls to their second bowl game in 47 years. At 7-3, Rice is guaranteed a spot in one of the six bowl games with C-USA tie-ins. Colleague Stewart Mandel currently projects the Owls will make the Texas Bowl, which is played in Houston's Reliant Stadium -- just over two miles from campus. But regardless of where they end up, it's the accomplishment and not the miles they'll travel in getting there that matters to the Owls' record-setting duo.
"[A bowl is] something to be excited about and that's all we kind of wanted to do was to come in here and turn everything around," Clement said.
These two kids from San Antonio breathed life into a stagnant program and set a slew of records in the process. Not bad for two players nobody else wanted.
"It's sort of a lesson in recruiting that certainly there are those diamonds in the rough," Herman said.