CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Every morning during his freshman year, Boston College tailback AJ Dillon walked from his dorm room in Gonzaga Hall on upper campus to the team’s football complex. In the pre-dawn darkness, as he trudged to early lifting sessions, he’d see the street lights illuminating Doug Flutie’s statue outside Alumni Stadium.
Flutie is immortalized in his Heisman Moment, ball cocked back to unleash a Hail Mary against Miami in 1984. It’s the most famous moment in school history, as it launched Flutie to the school’s only Heisman Trophy and propelled Boston College to be a national brand as a university.
As the statue appeared in the distance every morning, Dillon would lock his eyes on the solitary structure and let his mind wander. Dillon is the only Heisman Trophy candidate with photographs published on the front page of the Groton (Mass.) Herald. Like any photographer, Dillon is always searching for symmetry, angles and proper light. As he saw Flutie alone every morning, he eventually came to a conclusion: “I think there needs to be another statue next to it.” He pauses for a beat, adding a joke that doubles as a snapshot of humility. “Just so it’s aesthetically pleasing.”
Dillon is the program’s most promising offensive player since Matt Ryan left campus in 2007, which is notable considering bruising tailback Andre Williams finished No. 4 in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2013.
Two games into his sophomore year, Dillon has at least two more years to mount a campaign of his own and propel the program back to ACC contenders, just like in Ryan’s prime. Considering the confluence of an overhauled offensive system, a veteran offensive line that returned seven starters with 139 career starts and seven Eagles projected to be picked in the upcoming draft – a number that doesn’t include Dillon – there are myriad reasons for symmetrical statue optimism. “He has the capability of winning the Heisman,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio told Yahoo Sports in his office this summer. “And that says it all.”
On Oct. 14 of 2017, Dillon stiff-armed his way into the national consciousness when he bowled over Louisville safety Chucky Williams with a stiff-arm that doubled as a Mike Tyson upper-cut. Dillon ran 39 times for 272 yards and four touchdowns that afternoon and powered the Eagles to a 45-42 upset that changed the trajectory of BC’s program. Dillon finished No. 7 nationally in rushing last season, ran away with ACC Rookie of the Year honors and became the league’s preseason Player of the Year as a sophomore.
What excites people at Boston College is how Dillon carries himself, as much as how he carries the ball. He’s a Connecticut native, a rare star from New England, and chose to stay home after initially committing to Michigan in part because of his affinity for the city of Boston. Dillon will occasionally have his roommate, sophomore lineman Eddy Fish, drop him off at the Boston Common. He’ll slide on his headphones, let everything from Lil Uzi Vert to Ray Charles fill his ears, and wander alone with his camera for hours to capture scenes from the parks to the alleys for his website. “I just think it’s cool,” he said, “to capture a moment, see something from a different perspective.”
Two weeks into Dillon’s sophomore season, the ACC is being viewed through an entirely new perspective. Florida State is reeling, Louisville appears to be regressing and the winner of Thursday’s game between Boston College and Wake Forest could emerge as the biggest threat to Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. (The ESPN game kicks at 5:30 EST because of Hurricane Florence.)
An authoritative road win by the Eagles would offer a new portrait of Boston College, as they have a budding superstar, exciting scheme and a roster that could prompt the program to be looked at in a whole new light.
AJ Dillon’s blistering freshman season is only the beginning
AJ Dillon came to a team camp at Boston College in the summer before his senior season at Lawrence Academy. Veteran Eagles running back coach Brian White ran Dillon through a jump-cut drill, a routine exercise that he estimates he’s run 50,000 reps of during his 32 years of college coaching. White barked out the instructions – “RUN THROUGH MY FACEMASK!” – and told Dillon to cut the opposite of whatever way he moved. Dillon flubbed his first run, as he cut five yards out. White told him to close the space, joking, “If you run me over, I’ll survive.”
Dillon’s next rep, he darted directly at White and knocked him back two decades. White served as Wisconsin’s running backs coach from 1995 to 2006 and was also offensive coordinator during Ron Dayne’s 1999 Heisman Trophy season. White recalls Dayne as a 270-pound bruiser with ballerina feet, and he’s reminded of him daily for more reasons than Dayne’s son, Javian, being a BC freshman tailback. Every practice, Dillon recreates that once-a-generation sensation, an experience that can’t be quantified on a stopwatch.
“This is something I haven’t experienced since Ron [Dayne],” White said. “It’s as powerful, maybe more powerful, as crazy as it sounds. Have you have ever been on a freeway on the breakdown lane? And one of those 18 wheelers goes by and it shakes you?”
Dillon’s talent would have reverberated anywhere from Tuscaloosa to Columbus. But what’s made the BC staff so optimistic that Dillon could someday join Dayne in the rarest of college football airs has been his embrace of his evolution. Dillon didn’t start until the Louisville game, caught zero passes as a freshman and basically only played on downs last year when BC was running the ball. “The last thing you want to do is take a guy, and all of a sudden he makes a few mistakes and you ruin his confidence,” Addazio said.
After BC blocked a field goal to secure a 23-20 win over Northern Illinois to open the 2017 season, White made sure to find Dillon. He’d carried the ball just five times, and White worried that a player of his caliber and reputation would be disappointed. “Don’t worry about me,” Dillon said. “We just won the game. I’m going to try and get better.”
And he did, as his working load increased as he focused on holding the ball higher and learning the offense. Dillon started just seven games last season, and since that time his 167 yards per game lead the nation in rushing. Most important, the Eagles have gone 7-2 in a run that included a 35-3 blowout of Florida State.
Dillon is anxious to showcase himself as a more complete, every-down back as a true sophomore. He’s caught two passes for 27 yards and his first career receiving TD this season, has adjusted to the nuances of blitz pick-up and dominated inferior opponents UMass and Holy Cross with 9.5 yards per carry, 247 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
“I just see so many ways to improve,” Dillon said. “I’m just somebody who’s never been comfortable. If I’m going to do something, then I want to be the best ever, so I want to be the best that’s ever played running back at Boston College. I want to be the best that’s ever played [in the NFL] whenever I get drafted…so that keeps pushing me.”
BC strength coach Frank Piraino jokes that a majority of Dillon’s 245 pounds come between his hips and knees, as Dillon’s thighs are silos with their own area codes. He struggles to buy pants – a problem Houston tackle Ed Oliver also has – as Dillon says his dress pants fit so tight the outline of his boxers is visible. He’s found one type of jeans that fit from Lucky Brand, and his mom buys them online for $100 for him. “When I try to wear the normal pants, I look like I’m wearing skinny jeans all the time,” he said. “And that’s not the look I’m going for.”
But he could grow into exactly what the NFL looks for in a back, as he’s studying Leonard Fournette’s spin move, Kareem Hunt’s ability to run out to the slot and how Devonta Freeman runs with anger. He bristles at being pigeon-holed as a pure power back, a label that limited Dayne in the NFL. “Kind of like my photography, I don’t want to be one-dimensional,” he said. “I don’t want to only have these moves, I’m always trying to add to something else I can do.”
A window into Dillon’s work ethic
At the age of 9, Dillon recalls waking up for school one morning and seeing his mother, Jessyca Campbell, asleep on the couch and still wearing the waitressing uniform she’d worn the night before. She’d worked a full day teaching school and then a full shift, returning at midnight and then woke up the next morning to do the same thing.
The scene struck Dillon, as he mentions his mother sacrificing so much that she now refuses to eat Ramen Noodles because she ate so much when he was growing up. They had what they needed, but Dillon rarely asked for more.
Dillon told his mom that morning that his work ethic would eventually reward hers.
“I told her that she wouldn’t have to pay for college,” he said. “I told her I would earn a scholarship. At the time, I was thinking Central Connecticut State or whatever it had to be. And I told her I was going to get to the NFL and buy her a house.”
Dillon has secured the scholarship, which is more than $70,000 annually at BC. As he stiff-arms his way to secure the house, Dillon has also focused on paying forward his success. Athletic director Martin Jarmond found this out when his heart jumped on the morning after Dillon rushed for 193 yards in Boston College’s 42-14 blowout win at Syracuse last season. “Mr. Jarmond, this is AJ Dillon. I need some help,” he said in a Twitter DM. “I’ve got a question, can you give me a call?”
Jarmond’s initial instinct trended negative. “Oh my gosh, what’s going on?” he thought to himself. When they connected later that day, Jarmond’s fears pivoted to pride. With the regular season ending, Dillon thought he’d have some more free time. And as he rode the bus to the team’s victory meal on Sunday afternoon, a feeling came over him. “This my city now, and I want to give back,” he told Jarmond. “Do you know of any organization that I can do some volunteer work?”
Dillon ended up volunteering at a food pantry in Newton, and he’s also spoken to a group of middle school students involved in the mentoring-based Dorchester Educational Enrichment Program. He told the story of his mom insisting: “Make sure you use football, don’t let football use you.” That’s exactly what excites Jarmond about Dillon, as he’s seizing his platform at the school and the city. “AJ embodies all the things that our program is about,” Jarmond said. “He’s going to help people tell the story of BC.”
In the landscape of Boston sports, BC football lags far behind the pro sports crowd – Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. Dillon has heard the stories from the 1980s, when Flutie’s teams were the buzz of the city. He’s aiming to bring that back.
“If you have the city of Boston behind us, that’s something that I really want,” he said. “I don’t know what that’s going to take, whether that’s going to be winning the Heisman or winning the ACC, but I want to have the sense that everyone is included.”
Addazio’s drastic offensive shift helps Dillon’s campaign
Steve Addazio loves to run the ball as much as he loves red sauce on his pasta. Coaching offensive line is a family business for the Addazios, as his son, Louie, is on a similar coaching track to his father as Ohio State’s offensive line graduate assistant. For Steve Addazio, power football is as much a part of his football identity as his mustache.
That’s what made Boston College’s appearance in the Quick Lane Bowl against Maryland in December of 2016 so revealing. For the three weeks leading into the game, BC ripped up its ground-and-pound offensive playbook and practiced a pro-style, no-huddle scheme. BC finished the 2016 season No. 115 in plays run, so Addazio shifting to tempo for the bowl game was as unlikely as Army rolling out in the Run-N-Shoot.
“The biggest thing to me is how exact opposite that was of who he’s been since he’s been at BC,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “I mean he did a complete reversal.”
And that reversal should put Dillon in position to significantly improve last season’s totals of 1,589 yards and 5.3 yards per carry, as BC jumped 90 spots to No. 25 in snaps last year. They’re No. 8 this season, and more snaps will mean more opportunities to showcase Dillon behind the best offensive line in Addazio’s six seasons. “If he’s healthy for 12 games, based on what we do,” White said of Dillon, “he’s a 2,000-yard back.”
Ever since Florida played Oklahoma in the 2008 national title game, Addazio has been intrigued by the pro-style, no-huddle offense that former Sooners coordinator Kevin Wilson ran in that game. “I thought it was one of the best offenses I’d ever seen,” said Addazio, who was an assistant at Florida.
Play an extra defensive back to slow down the pass? Oklahoma lined up in heavy formations, ran down your throat and gave you no chance to sub. Load up the box? They’d flex out the tight ends and attack you with a flurry of spread runs and passes. Essentially, Addazio realized he could keep his red-sauce sweet spots – the power run game and multiple tight-end NFL concepts – and use tempo to accentuate them. “They had the ability to come at with you with power football,” Addazio said, “and then spread you out in the same blink.”
BC transitioned to the offense in about the same timeframe, with the key coming from the program’s strength at the tight end position.
Eagle senior Tommy Sweeney projects one of those NFL draft picks, and BC tight end coach Frank Leonard has an astonishing seven scholarship tight ends – 10 total – in his room. They have to learn their position, fullback, slot receiver and outside receiver for the offense to function at full throttle. “It’s impressive what they do,” said offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. “The massive amount of formations that we are able to go to very fast is really difficult.”
A few hours before facing Maryland that day, Loeffler and Addazio were on the elevator in the team hotel.
“You really want to do this?”
“We have no choice right now,” Loeffler responded with a laugh.
The schematic overhaul surprised Maryland, as BC jumped out to a 23-7 lead near the midway point of the second quarter and held on to win, 36-30.
Dillon flipped his commitment about two weeks before that game, a significant pledge for a program that went 3-9 in 2015. His emergence coincided with the offense finding a rhythm, as BC lost four of its first six games to open last season. After Dillon stiff-armed his way to the national scene against Louisville, Addazio inserted him as the full-time starter and the program has been running much like the offense – at high tempo – ever since. “It took a lot of courage for them to make that decision,” Venables said. “It looks like it’s paid off for them, it’s given them an identity and some juice.”
A victory on Thursday would solidify that identity, bumping BC into the national spotlight. That’s exactly the picture AJ Dillon is running toward, a city and country viewing Boston College from a different perspective.
More from Yahoo Sports: