In the game of football, there are situations you'll come across that aren't ideal. Sometimes no matter how much you plan or prepare or no matter what you do to put yourself in the best situation you can, you'll face things, sometimes well outside your control, that you'll have to deal with.
Certain players can deal with certain situations in more finesse ways. For example, some ball carriers can use a little shimmy and shake or some fancy footwork to get around an incoming defender that was suppose to get blocked but didn't -- anytime you can make a guy miss without contact that's probably the best option. Other times it could be in the form of a wide receiver going up with one hand and snatching a pass at an unthought of angle that avoids the extra unplanned defender who was creeping into the zone to knock the ball loose.
But there are other times when, even in those situations, the strength or sheer numbers of the opposition are too much. There is no where to shimmy, no correct angle to take, no green grass to find. The only way you're going to get to where you want to go is by gripping that ball a little tighter, bitting down on your mouthpiece, lowering your shoulder and trucking through what lies in front of you, letting the one who truly wants it the most be the one standing on the other side.
That's the story of Boston College running back AJ Dillon.
Matt Hayes of Bleacher Report wrote a fantastic feature on Dillon, and much of the backstory for this column stems from that. I would encourage you all to read it after you read this. In it, Hayes paints the picture of what life was like for Dillon; where he grew up, how he grew up, and why all of that matters when evaluating the running back he is now and the man he'll be in the NFL.
Dillon hails from New London, Connecticut, a small coastal city of about 30,000 people right in between New York and Boston. As is the case with most cities on the water in the northeast, its geography makes it ripe for avenues away. Its waters open passages to explore and escape, but that's not always what happens. In fact, according to Dillon, people from New London have a tendency to get stagnant more than adventurous.
"My hometown is one of those places where people get stuck," Dillon said. "You're born there, you go through high school and people tend to stay right there."
In the first chapters of Dillon's life in New London, he was raised by his mother, Jessyca Campbell, in what was a single-parent household for most of his upbringing. It was hard. Campbell worked around the clock, even more than saying sun-up to sun-down, leaving before the crack of dawn and not returning home until far after the sun set in the evening. Campbell's days began with an early alarm to get for her teaching job, then after school she would head to the restaurant to wait tables, then back at home to grade papers and prepare her lesson plan the next day, plus help AJ with whatever he needed help with in school. A few hours of sleep and she'd do it all again. But she never let circumstances of her past or present define the circumstances of her future, and that is a lesson that she taught AJ at a young age.
"In my mind, I didn't want to be a statistic, a young black mom raising a child," Campbell said. "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."
Campbell didn't have time to waste in a day, and she didn't let AJ waste his, either; she needed him to be disciplined. She instilled upon him at a young age that "doing your job" was part of being in the family. Sometimes that came in the form of doing homework at the table, making sure that school was taken care of. And other times it was in football. Hayes tells the story of how Campbell would wake Dillon up at 5:00 a.m. to do his wind sprints during conditioning.
As Campbell pushed Dillon in football, she began to learn the game at a high level, as well. She could recognize gap alignments and where Dillon needed to go with the ball. She understood which cardio and weight training exercises would improve his skills in each way. She was a role model, an alarm clock, a motivator and a coach.
"I've been called a lot of things for AJ," Campbell said to Hayes with emotion in her voice. "But I do what I do for the betterment of him."
Dillon was ahead of the curve mentally for a kid his age. He understood that he needed to spread his wings in order to achieve what he might be able to achieve in life, and he knew that those wings would likely go beyond his current situation in New London. So, at the age of 14, Dillon wrote a letter to his mother, in great detail, explaining why he wanted to go to Lawrence Academy, a renown Massachusetts boarding school. The school was going to be the best place for him for both education and football, but it wasn't going to be easy. It was going to take all of Dillon's braun, brains and focus to make it there.
Campbell knew that.
"I'm reading the letter and crying because he's coming at me exactly the way I wanted him to," Campbell said. "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.'"
If you've ever put yourself out there in such a manner, say taking a new job, going to a new school or just moving to a new city, you know that having the commitment and the attitude is the first step, but taking it doesn't mean the rest is easy.
Dillon had a hard time adjusting. Hayes writes that Dillon cried when Campbell dropped him off at Lawrence, and he cried throughout the weeks that followed. To that point, football was Dillon's escape, his way of dealing with things, doing something physical that he was good at to clear his mind. In the early stages of his time at Lawrence Academy, football became another stress, one that no longer had an escape.
He wanted to come home.
"I told him that's not an option," Campbell said. "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."
Over the next few years it did suck less, and in fact, Lawrence Academy became an environment in which Dillon not only thrived but evolved -- the whole reason he wrote the letter to him mother when he was 14. By his senior year, Dillon received scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Michigan, and Florida State. He had expanded his horizon as far as the eye could see, and set up for himself a tough but amazing decision on where to go next.
Ultimately Dillon decided on Boston College, a school just 100 miles from where he grew up.
But why? Why would Dillon do that after learning what his mother taught him, after writing his letter as just a young teenager, after putting in all that work to have the opportunity to spread his wings even further, beyond his northeast roots? Dillon didn't make the decision to go to B.C. from a lack of confidence in himself or even a fear of the unknown of what was out there. The root of Dillon's decision came from a desire to be motivated. First by his mother, staying closer to her example, and the second by having a constant reminder of the life that waited for him if gave up -- the life he never wanted in New London, Connecticut.
It did not take long for Dillon to make his mark on the college football landscape. In his freshman season, Dillon rushed for 1,589 yards with 14 touchdowns. He was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, which made him the first BC player to win either award. In the following season, Dillon started the year off strong with 652 yards and six touchdowns all before the month of October. An ankle injury limited Dillon for the second half of the season, but he still finished 2018 with over 1,000 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
That brings us to today. Going into his junior season, Dillon is alluring in just about every way as a pro prospect. He's built like mack truck at 6-foot, 250 pounds. He's a player with a ton of success and experience going into his first cycle of draft eligibility, and his off-the-field character is going to be something teams will marvel at.
The size, the stats and the story all have the green check mark next to them on Dillon's scouting report. What about the tape?
Play No. 1: You Don't Want the Smoke (With The Ball)
My God, AJ. That man had a family -- emphasis on the had.
Legend has it that defender is still laying on that very field in that very position Dillon put him in to this day.
That play is a great intro into AJ Dillon. This 6-foot, 250 pound running back is every bit of that size and he will use it on you in many ways. Sometimes it's lowering the shoulder, sometimes it's with a burst of speed and sometimes it's stiff arming you into oblivion. Breaking tackles is second nature to Dillon, and that is the kind of trait you want to see from a player of his size.
Being a feared power back is about mentality as much as it is about size. You have to have the identity in your head that you're the baddest man on the field and there's no way you're going down by just one defender. Your entire presence needs to scream, "I know you're feelin' yourself after summer workouts because you got a little bigger and hit a few PRs, but you better bring your friends if you want this ball to stop when it's in my hands."
Dillon has the mental makeup of a power player. But what separates him from other typical power backs is that he doesn't search for contact over green grass. So many power runners near Dillon's size -- which aren't many to begin with -- think that because their bread and butter is physicality that they have to seek it out to have success. That's not always the case and Dillon understands that. When it's time to lower the shoulder or get the arm out there, he doesn't hesitate to do so, but when it's not necessary and there is an easier path to open space, Dillon not only sees that but takes it.
Play No. 2: You Don't Want the Smoke (Without The Ball)
As you would hope with a man of Dillon's size, he is not only physical in the run game but also in the blocking game.
Check out the play above where he absolutely destroyed the incoming defender as the lead blocker. The only reason that guy didn't fly three more feet onto the ground is because the play ended up coming his way and helped him balance. But make no mistake, Dillon crushed him. This strength translates to pass protection, too.
Dillon has three-down ability with and without the ball.
Play No. 3: Big Man Finesse
I'm sorry, was that AJ Dillon or Braxton Miller, I can't tell.
Remember when Miller "wowed" us all when he hit that spin move at Ohio State? I remember freaking out about it. That move was slick, it was stylish and it down-right embarrassed the defender (I'm always game for those kind of plays). I don't think there was a single person who watched that play and wasn't impressed.
So take that memory and the feeling you had towards Miller's spin move and realize that Dillon put his defender in a similar spin cycle... WHILE WEIGHING 50 MORE POUNDS.
This should help bring context to just how rare of an athlete Dillon is for a player his size. I bet you're going to see a few Leonard Fournette comps for Dillon over the next year. I think some similarities between the two are well warranted. But remember that Dillon is 10 pounds bigger than Fourntete is, too. These are crazy athletes for players of their size.
Oh, and he has straight line speed, too. It's not a rare third gear or anything, but it's the kind of speed that is in no way a liability.
Play No. 4: He's Got Hands
Dillon has just eight catches to his name in his college career. But I'd be willing to say that's more a product of what Boston College wants to do with him and their offense more than it is Dillon's inability to be a receiver at all. For a big man, I think Dillon brings some natural athleticism to the table when it comes to catching passes. It will never be a big calling card to his game, but I think the capability level he has just completes the idea that Dillon can be a true three down back at the next level.
Play No. 5: Get Out Of New London
I started this article by saying that sometimes in football, like in life, you're going to be faced with situations that aren't ideal. But often the results of them depend less on the circumstances that put you there and more on your outlook once you're in them.
There is no panic in AJ Dillon's game. Whether the box is stacked, whether there's an unblocked defender or whether he's running out of room, Dillon seems to be controlled in all situations, making the most of whatever he can. This is a trait coaches love to see.
Sometimes the offensive line misses a block; sometimes you're left to raise a child on your own.
Sometimes the running lane you chose is the path of most resistance; sometimes the right decision in life is also the hardest one.
Sometimes what stands between you and the goal line is a situation where the odds are not in your favor.
Sometimes it's not about the odds against you, it's about the odds you'll beat. Out of a single-parent home, out of the toughest school in the state, out of a town few truly escape from.
In the offseason of 2018, Dillon had the opportunity to speak to a group of young athletes who, like Dillon, came from less-than-ideal situations in life.
"I told them: Don't ever let football use you; you use football," Dillon said. "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."
Sometimes you just have to lower the shoulder.