The NFL Can't Wait: Boston College Tailback AJ Dillon Is a Rare Talent

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterAugust 29, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 27: AJ Dillon #2 of the Boston College Eagles in action against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the first half of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on December 27, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
B/R

Editor's Note: College football is BACK. Get to know the three SURE-FIRE superstars who are guaranteed to dominate this season.

Part 1 (Tuesday): Nick Bosa

Part 2 (today): AJ Dillon

Part 3 (Thursday): Ed Oliver

           

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Watch the video. It's 15 seconds of utterly hypnotic football.

If you look hard enough, it tells a different story with every replay.

"All I remember is I wanted to get him off me," Boston College tailback AJ Dillon says of the Louisville defender he threw to the ground en route to a 75-yard touchdown run. "And I wanted to get around that corner."

You may not know Dillon, but consider this statement from an NFL scout to Bleacher Report: "If our league had a one-and-done like the NBA, [Dillon] is the perfect candidate."

Watch the video. The true freshman running back in his first career start—seven weeks into the season—looks like a senior All-American, a man among boys. He's reminiscent of former LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, 245 pounds of rumbling terror, tossing defenders aside like rag dolls and running away from others like they're stuck on pause.

He's not shifty or deceptive like Bryce Love of Stanford or dangerous and dynamic like Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, both of whom run behind massive offensive lines and are the most recognizable faces of college football at the tailback position. He's much more than that.

He's a chiseled player with 8 percent body fat. He once set the New England high school record for the 100-meter dash, not because he trained for it, but because, what the heck, he figured, let's see how fast I can run it.

He didn't start last year until the middle of October and still rushed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's the product of a single-parent household for much of his life, raised by his mother in New London, Connecticut, with equal parts unconditional love and unrelenting discipline every step of the way.

Jessyca Campbell worked multiple jobs while raising AJ, leaving for one at 6 a.m and returning from the last well past midnight. If she wanted to succeed in life, if she wanted to earn her master's degree and reach her goals, she needed AJ to fall in line and follow her lead.

Do as I say, AJ. Watch what I do.

LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 14: AJ Dillon #2 and Anthony Brown #13 of the Boston College Eagles look on during a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Boston College won 45-42. (Pho
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"We've made it too easy on kids today," says Campbell, who later married AJ's stepfather, Charles, when AJ was 12. "You go to a playground now, and kids may play well side by side, but they don't know how to communicate. They can't socially interact. Then when they get older, you don't see work ethic as young people."

She stops here to explain her life as a single mother: working as a teacher and then heading off to wait tables before finding her way home late at night to grade papers, produce lesson plans and go over AJ's homework prior to sleeping a few hours and starting all over again.

The rules were non-negotiable: AJ did his homework at the dinner table whether Jessyca was there or not. At one point, his mother had five jobs, working as a teacher, a server at two restaurants, a receptionist at a local hospital and a paid intern while earning her master's in education.

She woke early and rousted AJ to run wind sprints at 5 a.m. and to teach him the finer points of football. She learned how to recognize A- and B-gaps on the line of scrimmage and at one point bought a parachute she attached to AJ for cardio training.

Her dad, Thom Gatewood, was an All-American at Notre Dame, the first African American captain in Irish history and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. So yeah, Jessyca could figure out a thing or two about the sport.

She also had a firm grip on what was important and how it would impact AJ.

"In my mind, I didn't want to be a statistic, a young black mom raising a child," Campbell continues. "I told AJ: 'This is our situation, but that doesn't mean you can't work hard, you can't have goals, you can't reach everything you want in life. You can go with the flow, but that's not who we are.' I pushed him hard every single day."

She stops again, this time her voice trailing off with emotion. "I've been called a lot of things for AJ," she says. "But I do what I do for the betterment of him."


CHESTNUT HILL, MA - OCTOBER 27: AJ Dillon #2 of the Boston College Eagles celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Florida State Seminoles during the third quarter at Alumni Stadium on October 27, 2017 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ma
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Watch the video. He just wants to throw the defender, Louisville's Chucky Williams, down and out of his path. Just like he wanted to release the anchor of New London from pulling him under. Both were obstacles to reaching his goals.

"My hometown is one of those places where people get stuck," Dillon says. "You're born there, you go through high school and people tend to stay right there."

So 14-year-old AJ sat down one day and wrote a letter to his mother. It was a five-page, neatly printed and detailed request to attend a Massachusetts boarding school, where he could get a good education and play football at a higher level. It was also a place where college scouts could more easily see him play.

Lawrence Academy is a renowned prep school in New England, with no academic breaks for athletes. You can either do the work, or you can't. If you can't, you're not playing football.

"I'm reading the letter and crying because he's coming at me exactly the way I wanted him to," Campbell says. "My husband and I said, 'We gotta give a shot.' He says to us: 'It's not a shot. When I make this commitment, I'm not coming back.'"

When Dillon arrived in Groton, Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston and 90 minutes from New London, he cried off and on for the first three weeks he was there. This rustic campus in the rolling hills of Groton may as well have been the other side of the world.

He didn't fit in, football hadn't begun and he missed that comfortable safety net. He wanted to come home. For a kid born in Baltimore and raised in New London, the morning fog sweeping off the hills wasn't exactly as peaceful and inviting as it sounds.

"I told him that's not an option," Campbell says. "It's going to suck, and in a couple of days, it's going to suck a little less. That's not very profound advice, but it's what he needed to hear. There were times when I cried for him, but I've never told him that."

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

Eventually, it did suck less. Eventually, he made friends, football began and the reason he left for Lawrence quickly came into focus. He set records and dominated at the private school, but many colleges didn't know what to make of his game tape against clearly inferior opponents. Some said he should play linebacker.

"They couldn't see it," says Paul Zukauskas, Dillon's coach at Lawrence and a former All-American offensive lineman at BC who played four years in the NFL. "Then FSU timed him from the game tape, and suddenly, he's not just running away from rinky-dink kids in New England. The best way I described it was he's faster than anybody that can tackle him, and nobody that's as fast as him can tackle him."

By his senior year, Dillon had offers from all over the country. Notre Dame wanted him. So did Florida State and Michigan and every other major program where he would have a much better chance of attaining one of the goals that he set for himself at Lawrence: winning the Heisman Trophy.

He chose Boston College because, more than anything, it was close to home, close to Jessyca and close enough to see the life that waited for him if he didn't make it out.

When told of the NFL scout's one-and-done assessment of Dillon, Zukauskas doesn't flinch. He played with a first-round pick at BC (William Green) and with and against numerous elite backs in the NFL.

"AJ has more talent in terms of physical attributes, in what he can do from a size and speed standpoint, than I've been around—even at the NFL level," Zukauskas says. "He could have gone to the [NFL] combine as a junior in high school and turned heads. He's absolutely the type of guy I could see as a one-and-done.

"Look, I'm not saying he's the best player that has ever been born, but I guarantee he can hang in the NFL right now."


Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Watch the video. Jaire Alexander, Louisville's star defensive back and a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, crashes in from the right on a run blitz and bounces off one of Dillon's tree-trunk legs—helplessly falling to the ground.

"Never should have happened," Dillon says.

Why? Because had he fully understood the position, Dillon, who had never been tutored by a running backs coach before arriving at Boston College, would've recognized the corner blitz and avoided it or called it out to the offensive line.

But that wasn't life at Lawrence Academy, where a limited coaching staff meant everyone double-trained players. The quarterbacks coach was also the school's director of college counseling (for the entire school), and there was a good chance he either wasn't making it to practice or was late. So guess who coached the running backs?

The guy who missed the corner blitz against Louisville.

Dillon used drills he learned at college camps and worked individually with the running backs before Lawrence team drills began. But calling them team drills would be a stretch.

His first two years at Lawrence, the full roster was in the high 30s. His junior and senior year, it had reached the high 40s. That's just the number of players on the roster—not necessarily guys who can compete for spots or even 22 players who could scrimmage.

"Our jayvee and varsity were combined, and we realistically had 14-15 guys who could play. A lot of us played both ways," says Eddie Fish, Dillon's best friend who played at Lawrence and is a reserve offensive lineman at BC. "We weren't really installing an offense and scrimmaging. It was a lot of power and a lot of counter to [Dillon]. We had a good offensive line, and we'd cover up the guys up front, and AJ would take over. I guess some things never change."

When BC opened fall camp earlier this month, it marked one year to the day that Dillon was first taught the nuances of playing the position, from the idea of setting up blocks and understanding when to run patiently and when to attack to the subtle changes a defense makes that tip its play. "I'm just a big ball of clay waiting to be molded," he says.

Boston College coach Steve Addazio
Boston College coach Steve AddazioRichard Shiro/Associated Press

"It's a different game for him now," says BC head coach Steve Addazio. "Every young guy learns and adjusts and improves. But AJ is a completely different player now."

This time a year ago, Dillon didn't even know how to recognize fronts. Now he's figuring out how to make the most of his carries.

He knows the realities of running backs in the NFL, that the average lifespan is just under four years. He knows those 300 carries last year could easily become more than 1,000 over three years at BC—and quickly take a toll on his body. "Some of those carries last year weren't smart," Dillon says. "I know how to protect my body better because now I know the position, I know what the defense is going to do. There is no more unknown."


Watch the video. Dillon is running away from second-level defenders, both with the angle on him. It's not that the defense is giving up over the final 30 yards; it's that Dillon is separating at a ridiculous rate.

Just like he had to separate from New London and forge his own path. He'd never seen a cow before arriving at Lawrence and barely knew anything outside New London. But by the time he graduated and moved on to BC, his world had completely changed.

"The experiences I've had have made me a better person," Dillon says.

He learned another language and made friends with others outside his socioeconomic orbit. He's close friends with a Saudi Arabian prince and has friendships with children from some of the wealthiest families in America.

The father of one of his friends is the director of the musical Wicked. Another friend's father is from Venezuela, and his son was sent to Lawrence, Dillon says, because the family didn't want him to be kidnapped and ransomed.

Earlier this spring, Zukauskas asked Dillon if he would speak to Project Deep, an educational program for Boston youth focusing on social and athletic growth. A room full of fresh-faced kids, some from the most impoverished areas of Boston, stared at the young man who was once one of them.

"I told them: Don't ever let football use you; you use football," Dillon says. "When you go to college and the NFL, you're going to feel like everything is about football. If that's the way you look at it, you're eventually going to hate it. It's going to become a chore, and you're not going to reach your full potential.

"But if you use football as an element, a tool, to get out of your neighborhood, to get an education, to meet new people, experience different cultures ... you'll be able to have everything you want."

At the end of the speech, the director of Project Deep pulled Zukauskas aside and told him the organization has had speakers from MLB, the NHL, NFL and the NBA. None hit home like Dillon.

"He crushed it," Zukauskas says. "Not that we should be surprised."


SYRACUSE, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  AJ Dillon #2 of the Boston College Eagles celebrates a touchdown during the first quarter that makes the score 14-7 Boston College leading Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome on November 25, 2017 in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Watch the video. As he crosses the goal line, Dillon half-raises his hands in an awkward celebration before turning and running to the sideline. He was at a loss for how to celebrate.

"I guess," he says, "because there was more to do."

It's so much more than a game now for college football's next great star. Now he wants to be part of something much bigger in college sports.

Next in his crosshairs: the NCAA's rule that prohibits players from making money off their names and images.

He was studying philosophy earlier this spring and reading about Thrasymachus, a sophist in ancient Greece, 400 BC. Thrasymachus said, "Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger."

"Immediately, I was like, yep, the NCAA," Dillon says.

The concept, Dillon says, should be simple. You have a brand, and someone wants to use your brand. Why can't the NCAA let the market figure out supply and demand?

"If someone downtown wants to name a burger after me, why can't I get 10 percent of that?" Dillon says.

Don't pay players a penny from the money earned from games, Dillon says. Keep it all for the universities and their general funds, but allow players to use the money from their names and images any way they see fit—and allow capitalism to work its magic.

"It can be done, but they don't want to do it—and not because [the NCAA] would be losing money," Dillon says. "It's the idea that other people are in charge of their athletes. They don't have control."

Watch the video. Throughout those 15 seconds, Dillon is in complete control.

There was never really a question of what was around that corner.

Only how quickly he'd get there.

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