CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – In Boston College’s fifth game of 2018, star tailback AJ Dillon took what his position coach refers to as a “water run.” BC running backs coach Brian White invented the dismissive term for runs that lack intention, as Dillon flowed horizontally behind the line of scrimmage and admits he “was just kind of going with the blockers.”
Instead of planting his foot and going vertically to grind out three yards, Dillon went with the flow. Along the wave, a player got blocked into his ankle and a season of Heisman hopes and All-America promise got rolled under by a high-ankle sprain.
The moment changed everything for Dillon, as he missed two games, hobbled through five others and encapsulated why he looks back with “animosity” at his sophomore season.
To call Dillon’s sophomore season a disappointment would be an overstatement, as he finished with 1,108 yards, scored 11 touchdowns and earned a first-team All-ACC selection. But it clearly fell below expectations, as he was the ACC Preseason Player of the Year and talked openly about a Heisman Trophy and a corresponding statue to flank Doug Flutie’s on BC’s campus.
Muddling through a season with a significant injury altered Dillon’s perspective, which manifested itself with a message on his Instagram page this offseason: “BE PHENOMENAL OR BE FORGOTTEN.”
“I look back on it now, and I’m grateful for it,” Dillon said. “I think because I kind of needed that fire. I was kind of feeling myself, you know, coming off freshman year and getting all the awards.”
A forgettable season ended in the most fitting way – with BC’s First Responder Bowl against Boise State canceled due to inclement weather. Dillon was finally healthy and ran for an early touchdown, statistics that got washed out with the game. From his freshman to sophomore year, Dillon’s yards per carry dipped from 5.3 to 4.9 and overall rushing yards fell by 440. The aura of invincibility that surrounded him during the later part of 2017 – 272 yards against Louisville and three touchdowns against Syracuse – faded away.
The conga line of national media coming through Boston to interview Dillon and tell his compelling backstory disappeared this summer, as he did just one interview.
Dillon plans to be sure no one forgets about him this season: “I'm ready to take college football by storm.”
Dillon’s Instagram inspiration came via motivational speaker Eric Thomas, who also offered a piece of insight that’s guided Dillon heading into his junior year: “The lion doesn’t just catch the gazelle, they appreciate the hunt.”
White saw Dillon’s sophomore setbacks play out a generation earlier. He coached Ron Dayne as an assistant at Wisconsin in the late 1990s when his statistics dipped significantly from his freshman to sophomore year – from 6.5 yards per carry to 5.5.
White saw the same parallel themes play out from Dayne in 1997 more than two decades later. Both Dillon and Dayne’s early success emboldened them with a belief that it would simply happen again. Neither were non-compliant, but they didn’t put in the extra work. “They just didn't have the same thirst for doing more, because I just think they believed that it was just going to happen,” White said. “And consequently, the same thing happened to Ron that happened to AJ. You take a lazy rep, you get hurt.”
Dayne, of course, went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1999 and set the NCAA career rushing record. Dillon has spent the seven months since BC’s canceled bowl attempting to recalibrate his career trajectory on a similar plane.
Dillon is in elite physical condition, trimming down to five percent body fat, with his muscles at a recent morning workout appearing as if they were chiseled out of granite. Dillon is a 6-foot, 251-pound back with a 39-inch vertical jump. To put that in perspective, he’d have been the seventh-highest jumper out of the more than 50 players at the most recent NBA draft combine.
As he’s gotten healthy and refined himself physically, Dillon has maintained what White says the BC coaches call “Eagle Eyes” in the program. He says it’s the look of Tiger Woods on Sunday at Augusta, an unwavering focus that waned occasionally the previous offseason. “The way he’s attacked his preparation both physically and mentally, the consistency and the thirst that I’ve seen that, quite honestly, was lacking last summer at this time,” White said. “Last year was not the year he expected to have or wanted to have, so I think he’s more than ready to prove that he’s an elite football player.”
What will be different in 2019? Dillon raved about new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who has brought a focus on explosive plays in head coach Steve Addazio’s tempo-based pro-style offense. That includes a more vertical element to the passing game for junior quarterback Anthony Brown, who appeared to take a leap this spring. BC’s tight-end room is one of the best in the country, as redshirt sophomore Hunter Long could be one of the sport’s breakout players. “If we can throw the ball to a different level than we have in the past and play complementary football,” Dillon said, “we’ll have one of the best offenses in college football.”
Bajakian came from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with whom he served as Jameis Winston’s quarterback coach and carries former Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter’s philosophy that explosive plays lead to more touchdown drives. Dillon is excited about wrinkles that include him lining up in the slot and catching more screen passes. “He’s got very good hands,” Bajakian said. “We’ve got to find ways to throw him the ball more. And just find different ways in the passing game to get him involved.”
The way teams will have to tackle Dillon will change, too. After he hurt his ankle in 2018, Dillon said teams focused in on tackling low. “Against Miami,” he said, “there’s literally plays where safeties are on their knees before they touch me.” Addazio said generally about teams going low on Dillon: “That guy takes hellacious hits. Everybody low-leg hunts him, it’s gross. No one will tackle him up top, so they’re all trying to take his knees out.”
Dillon couldn’t avoid those players last season because his ankle limited his ability to cut, plant and jump. Dillon’s hallmarks as a freshman were initiating and delivering contact, but he spent much of last season bracing for it.
In all likelihood, this will be Dillon’s last season at Boston College. He didn’t overtly say it, but the combination of his measurables and production would hint at him following the norm for the tailback position and leaving after three seasons.
After approaching last season with an air of inevitable success, Dillon has returned to relishing the hunt. Adjustments have been made, and he’s ready to make sure no one forgets about him again. “He’s absolutely the best running back in the country, as long as he stays healthy,” Addazio said. “Just watch this guy, he’s a freak.”
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