CHESTNUT HILL -- During his 32 years in college football, Boston College assistant coach Brian White has worked with many game-breaking running backs at top programs throughout the country.
At Wisconsin, White instructed 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and former NFL first-round draft pick Michael Bennett. He had current New England Patriots’ running back Mike Gillislee at Florida.
But in BC’s super sophomore AJ Dillon, White just might have a football-toting prodigy like none he’s ever coached before.
Hand the ball to Dillon and he becomes a paradox in shoulder pads. One that possesses the rare ability to bowl a defender over on one play, and bust a move to the corner and down the sideline on the next.
Dillon rushed for a BC freshman record 1,589 yards and scored 14 touchdowns last fall. He was an All-ACC selection as well as the conference’s Rookie of the Year. The former Lawrence Academy standout was recently voted the ACC Preseason Player of the Year.
So who does Dillon’s running style most remind White of?
“I’ve been asked that a whole bunch this summer, and it forced me to really think,” said White. “I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I watched some old ESPN highlights of Bo Jackson. I know that’s very high praise. I don’t like to play the comparison game and compare him to other players. But if you were to put a gun to my head and say, ‘You have to make a decision on who that person would be.’ I’d say Bo.”
Bo knows football. And Dillon knows how to get into a hole at the point of attack. The native of New London, Conn., was a runaway train during the second half of last season, helping BC finish with a 7-6 record. After gaining 333 yards and scoring one touchdown over the first six games, this hard-charging 6-foot, 245-pounder ripped through defenses for 1,256 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns in the final seven contests.
The blissful maturation of talent and potential came together for Dillon in an unforgettable performance in a wild 45-42 win at Louisville. Dillon rushed for 272 yards on 39 carries and scored four touchdowns against the Cardinals. From that game on there was no stopping him.
“Yeah, I definitely would say that Louisville probably was when I first started to kind of realize that I started to trust myself,” said Dillon. “As the year progresses week-by-week, I’m not sure you can always tell as a player how you’re running. You can see me kind of thinking through cuts, trying to figure things out.
“Now as we progressed, I started to think more loosely, more fluid. You just kind of understand, okay, these are all scholarship guys, and I deserve to be here, too. That’s probably the biggest thing as a freshman, or anybody that started playing, getting that confidence and realizing you’re just as good as the guy across the line.”
Based on his stats, Dillon was playing at a much higher level than most of the defenders lined up opposite him. His style of running is explosive, impetuous with an air of discovery.
“He’s a great back,” said BC quarterback Anthony Brown. “He’s a very huge catalyst in our offense. It’s amazing having him because it takes a lot of pressure off a lot of people. I know I can hand the ball off and we can easily get from five to 70 to 80 yards. That takes a lot of pressure off of me. It takes a lot of pressure off the coaches.”
It puts a lot of pressure on defenders. And as good as Dillon was last season, the best may be yet to come in his development as a runner.
“Honestly, he has huge room for growth,” said White. “Just from a mental standpoint he still is evolving in his ability to anticipate the game a lot more. He’s become a lot more knowledgeable in terms of fronts, pressures protections and he’s done an exceptional job all summer with his route running.
“You are going to be impressed by his ability to catch the ball. He’ll be a major factor in those areas, which will be kind of fun to see. He won’t be just a first and second down back like he was last year. We’ll spell him at times, but he’s really worked hard to become an every down back.”
The source of Dillon’s power is his legs. Even though he’s more than capable of carving out his own holes, Dillon is quick to praise the role BC’s offensive line has played in his success.
“I’ve always had a great relationship with my line,” said Dillon. “The line here, they’re great guys, great individuals. We joke around a lot. I always go over there, see them after practice. They call me the horse. Actually before the spring game, I didn’t play, but they brought me sugar cubes and carrots. We have a bunch of little jokes like that.”
With Dillon running the football, stopping BC’s offense will be no joking matter for the heavyweight programs in the ACC.
Follow Carmine Frongillo on Twitter @cwfrongi