After Bettendorf’s football season ended in the UNI-Dome last November, the coaching staff gave the players a week off before starting its offseason weightlifting and conditioning program.
Brandan Tillman refused to take a respite.
The Monday after the semifinal loss to Iowa City West, Tillman already was in the weight room preparing for the next season.
“I had a lot of motivation to get our team where it needed to be because I knew we could have something special,” Tillman said. “I wasn’t where I wanted to be weight-wise last season and really wanted to jump to that next level.”
Tillman and tailback Austin Kalar, two players who had limited roles as juniors, have turned into key playmakers for the Bulldogs heading into Friday's Class 4A semifinal against West Des Moines Dowling at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
The 6-foot and 170-pound Tillman had three receptions for 41 yards as a junior. Kalar had only 24 carries last fall as he was behind Nigel McIntosh on the depth chart.
Both went into the offseason knowing an opportunity was there for expanded playing time. Both seized the chance.
“Both had tremendous offseasons,” Bettendorf coach Aaron Wiley said. “They really committed themselves to it, in the weight room and everything they needed to take care of in preparation for the next season.”
The fruits of their labor have showed on the field.
Tillman has turned into a two-way starter for the Bulldogs. A first team all-district performer, he has hauled in 34 catches for 498 yards and a touchdown. He’s also excelled at cornerback with three interceptions, including a 43-yard return for a score in last week’s quarterfinal win over Iowa City West.
Kalar has rushed for 1,185 yards and 20 touchdowns. He’s accumulated 150, 111, 125 and 189 yards, respectively, in the last four games with 10 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs struggled sustaining a running game early in the season. With improvement up front and Kalar’s production, it has flourished recently.
“When I came into the season, I already knew I was quick,” Kalar said. “It was becoming more patient as a runner. I always wanted to get the ball and bounce it outside. The coaches were always telling me to be patient.
“Coach (Phil) Schaefer sat me down and was like, ‘Slow to, fast through.’ Once you hit the hole, you’ve got to have quick feet and be explosive.”
With the program's level of consistency and depth, it isn’t unusual for juniors at Bettendorf to bide their time.
Tillman was the third receiver behind Darien Porter and Ben Wilson.
“I didn’t feel like I got very many opportunities,” Tillman said. “I feel I could have made a lot more plays and helped out the team a lot, but that did motivate me a lot to get in the weight room and do things I needed to do to leave no doubt.”
Tillman grew up in Kansas City. He moved to the Quad-Cities in seventh grade, relocated to Blue Springs, Missouri, and then returned after his freshman year.
He weighed about 155 pounds last football season.
“When I started off here originally, I didn’t think I needed the weight since I had a good amount of skill,” Tillman said.
Tillman added around 20 pounds in the offseason.
“My coaches wanted me to get more strength in the legs so I could break those arm tackles,” Tillman said.
Tillman leads the team in receptions and interceptions. He’s also recovered a fumble and has been used on special teams.
“Brandan is very elusive,” Wiley said. “It isn’t necessarily the top-end speed, but he’s shifty, a great stop-and-go guy. He’s only 170-some pounds, but he’s a tough kid, and we’ve asked a lot out of him.”
Kalar was 165 pounds at end of last season. He gained 15 pounds and increased his quickness after time in the weight room and running track in the spring.
“He doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s fast and has some shiftiness to him,” Wiley said. “He’s got a little thump to him as well, brings an element of toughness to the position as well.”
Kalar went into fall camp competing for the starting spot with AJ Douglas. Once Kalar snatched it, he hasn’t let go of it.
“I kind of knew last year I wasn’t going to have a big role, but I was always there, never skipped practice,” Kalar said. “I knew (this season) was going to be my year. This senior class of ours always has hung out with each other and have a bond that we want to push each other.
“We’ve had a goal since sixth grade that we want to win a state title.”
The Bulldogs face a tall challenge in Dowling, which has captured the last five state championships and just knocked off top-ranked West Des Moines Valley in the quarterfinals, 31-9.
Tillman and Kalar aren’t ready for it to end.
“This has been the biggest year of my life,” Tillman said. “The coaches preached to me in the offseason I was going to have to play both ways and get my body prepared for this.
“The first couple of weeks, I wasn’t prepared for that. But as the season has progressed, my body is at the highest level right now.”