or fans of Boston College football, the turning point in the season—maybe in all of coach Steve Addazio’s tenure as head coach of the Eagles—came on Oct. 14, 2017. The team was in Louisville, and no one outside of BC’s own locker room gave the underdogs from Chestnut Hill a chance at coming away with a win.
Just a year earlier, Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson ran all over the Eagles to the tune of seven touchdowns, blowing out BC, 52-7, on its own home field. That game though, was without A.J. Dillon. At that time, the soon to be BC running back, still in high school, was busy nursing a season-ending injury. Three weeks prior, before fracturing his right fibula in the game’s final seconds, Dillon, wearing No. 22 for the Lawrence Academy Spartans, had gone for three touchdowns and 172 rushing yards in a win over St. Sebastian’s.
“Our coaches always tell us freshmen that it’s hard for you to be the man on your team after getting all the accolades in high school,” Dillon said. “Because when you get to college it doesn’t really matter. You start all over again.”
If that’s true, the freshman running back many be the only exception, because that day against St. Sebastian’s was nothing compared to what Dillon was set to unleash against the Cardinals. Exactly 364 days after his final game in a Spartan uniform, down two touchdowns in the second quarter, the Eagles needed to prove they still had a pulse in Louisville. A year ago, they certainly didn’t, but this time around, they had a secret weapon.
“I remember I got a lot of touches early,” Dillon recalled. “On the sideline [running backs coach Brian White] came to me and said ‘you gotta take over this game, and you’ve gotta just start playing loose.’”
The contest was a turning point in Dillon’s collegiate career. Colton Lichtenberg’s game-winning field goal capped BC’s first win against Louisville since 1994, and what was a career day for the relative-unknown freshman. Dillon went off, besting his high school self with four touchdowns and 272 yards—most notably a beastly 75-yard touchdown run that sent the BC faithful into an absolute frenzy.
The freshman would go on to receive ACC Rookie of the Year honors, scoring eight more touchdowns in just six remaining games and helping turn a 2-4 start into BC’s first winning regular season in four years. For this reason alone, he is The Heights 2017-18 Breakout Player of the Year.
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et, even then, Dillon’s mother, Jessyca Campbell, sees his turning point differently. Although most fans on a national scale first heard the name “A.J. DIllon” on that sunny afternoon in Louisville, Campbell believes Dillon proved he had what it took two weeks earlier, nonetheless in a 27-point loss to then-No. 2 Clemson. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell it from the final scoreboard, the Eagles hung with the Tigers through three quarters—the game had been tied at seven entering the fourth. That lone BC score? Clemson had allowed its first touchdown of the season at home to none other than Dillon.
“For him to get that touchdown against a team like that meant a lot for his confidence,” Campbell said. “Everyone else saw the Louisville game, of course, but I think for him to know he could compete at the college level meant a lot.”
Whether it was in fact that game against Clemson in which Dillon broke out of his comfort zone or not, one thing was certain—the freshman was ready to compete, and opponents were put on notice.
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hile college scouts throughout his high school career quickly labeled Dillon as “freakishly athletic” and “a bruising downhill runner,” the freshman running back could only describe the start to his year with one word: timid.
The expectation was never that Dillon would put up staggering numbers right off the bat, especially with junior Jonathan Hilliman getting most of the work at the start of the year, but it’s telling that the first-year Eagle was able to recognize he wasn’t playing at the level he wanted to be.
“If you look at the front few games against the last six games, my entire running game is timid where I’m taking an extra split second on decisions,” Dillon explained. “Once I really started to come into my own, I realized that I belong here too and that I’m just as good as those guys across the field.”
Despite running for 120 yards and a touchdown against Central Michigan, Dillon still wasn’t satisfied, and put in the extra time whenever and wherever he could. After four fumbles through the first seven games of the year—only one of which was lost to the other team, he describes walking around the BC campus with a football tucked snuggly in his arm, making sure to get his carrying technique down pat.
His focus on keeping the ball high and tight did the trick. The 240-pounder didn’t lose the ball once throughout the Eagles’ final seven games.
The decision to put in extra time off the field is obviously nothing new for Dillon. His stepfather, Charles, recalls that even throughout high school, Dillon would wake him up asking for a ride to the gym. Jessyca, too, would face those early morning wake-up calls—Dillon needed to go to the high school track, where he’d run sprints in an effort to improve his speed and agility.
It wasn’t hard to motivate him either. Charles Campbell tells a story in which Dillon, then a high school sophomore, opened up the sports section in a local newspaper, only to find that his name didn’t appear on the list of “most notable backs to watch in the state”.
“He felt slighted by it because he had a really good sophomore campaign,” Campbell explains. “He put that article up in his locker and printed copies of it all over the place. It was the first thing he saw in the morning and the last thing he saw at night, and by the end of his junior season he was the number one back in Massachusetts”
Dillion had more than answered the call: By the end of his junior year, he had rushed for almost 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.
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The high expectations Dillon places on himself are arguably unprecedented for any running back that has played for BC. The most successful one in recent memory—2013 Heisman-nominee Andre Williams, may have had over 2,000 rushing yards his senior season, but three years earlier, he shared the backfield with Montel Harris, another Eagle legend, and scored just two touchdowns as a freshman himself. Dillon is essentially starting his legacy where Williams left off, and currently boasts a breakneck pace that would shatter the current program record for career rushing yards.
Unlike his predecessor, though, Dillon is all alone now. Recognizing the freshman’s emergence as the top dog, Hilliman made the decision to transfer to Rutgers next fall. The move was obvious, as Dillon had asserted himself and will now likely shoulder an even larger load then last fall. Still, the upperclassman’s departure means the loss of a mentor, something he highlighted as extremely valuable to him as he made his transition to the collegiate level.
“He was the most seasoned back on our roster and he just kinda took me under his wing. It was the little things too,” Dillon said. “Like how to deal with situations if the coach is yelling at you or if you make a bad play—how to shake it off and get better acclimated.”
It’s safe to say that Hilliman did his part, guiding Dillon to the highest season rushing total of any underclassman Eagle ever. With such immense success at such a young age, he is set to be the face of the program for years to come. He refers to it as “the Boston College brand,” knowing that when it comes to the nation-wide image of Division I universities, one of the first things that catches the eye of a prospective student is the culture surrounding athletics.
“Somebody from Montana may have no idea what Boston College is, but if me or Lukas Denis or Chris Lindsom happens to pop up on ESPN, and they say ‘Oh. What’s this?’ it shines a light on everyone else here,” Dillon says. “It feels great being able to represent Boston College in that way.”
More so than the national spotlight though, is the importance Dillon has assigned to both family and friendship throughout his journey, especially with his 6-year-old sister, Olivia, who he FaceTimes with at least every other day.
“It’s amazing in the midst of everything,” Jessyca said, “he’ll still have a 20-minute conversation with her about her day”
Dillon is this year’s champion for breakout player of the year, but to Olivia he still goes by the same name: Bubby.
“It means ‘brother’ in our own secret language,” Olivia said.
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t BC, Dillon has been able to establish lasting relationships with teammates as well. Similar to the role Hilliman played as a mentor in the backfield, Dillon acknowledges the ease of learning the offense thanks to the help of redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown. With a year’s more worth of experience on the BC roster than Dillon, Brown was able to help the freshman learn the ins and outs of different playcall schemes. Making it easier was the fact that the two got along so well—as Dillon tells of long nights in which the two would stay up late playing Fortnite, the popular video game.
“We established a great connection off the bat,” he said. “We would go out on the field and our teammates would be like ‘Oh it’s AB-AD,’ fun stuff like that”
When Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury against N.C. State, though, Dillon knew he would have to keep up his momentum despite losing his best friend from the backfield. Although he admits he had to take a step back when his quarterback went down, he was still able to adjust to southpaw Darius Wade the rest of the way.
When Dillon was able to dominate even with Brown out, it was clear he had officially broken loose as the team’s star. Just a week after Brown had walked off the field for good, Dillon exploded for two touchdowns and 200 yards against UConn at a frigid Fenway Park, helping clinch a bowl game for BC.
There’s no telling what Dillon and the Eagles will be able accomplish next fall. Those close to him describes Dillon as a “goal-oriented perfectionist,” and they’re not wrong. Dillon recently posted a screenshot from his phone on Twitter in which he outlines his target milestones going into next season. Top on the list? An ACC Championship.
Even as Dillon’s goals change from the desire to be featured in a local newspaper to being crowned king of one of the most prolific conferences in all of college football, he’s still that same kid from New London, Conn., bulldozing over defenders for Lawrence Academy.
Featured Images by Keith Carroll / Heights Editor