Before Boston College, A.J. Dillon committed to the University of Michigan. For Dillon, it was about chasing tradition and following the footsteps of his grandfather, Tom Gatewood, the legendary Notre Dame wide receiver.
Gatewood was known for being an outstanding college player with over 150 receptions, 2,200-plus receiving yards, and 19 touchdowns in three seasons with the Fighting Irish. Those are outstanding numbers for a game that had so much focus on running the ball down your throat. The numbers were so good that they landed Gatewood in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Clearly, the expectations are high for Dillon. They were as a three-star recruit coming out of Lawrence Academy in New London, Connecticut, and they still are for the junior running back. Despite backing out of his commitment to Michigan, he has lived up to the hype. There were doubters, though, and I’m sure there still are.
Four games into his senior season of high school, Dillon fractured his fibula. This put a lot of pressure on him to make a decision. He had visits with Boston College, Notre Dame, and Michigan, all enticing choices. There was the family history for the Fighting Irish and the tradition of 100 years of success at Michigan. But then there was the atmosphere at Boston College that drew him in. After the injury, Dillon felt like it was best to be closer to home. Boston College just made too much sense.
Going into his junior season, the talented running back is on the radar of many evaluators, scouts, and teams across the NFL. Without question he’s on mine, and with such an interesting backstory I decided to dive into the film and see how talented A.J. Dillon really is.
Spinning Off Tackles
We all love a good spin move. On the football field, it’s always fun being that guy that makes someone else look foolish. A.J. Dillon has his moments where he will be that guy. Last year, he forced 51 missed tackles (according to Pro Football Focus), leading the ACC. While he runs with plenty of power, I would go ahead and say that his running style is more like, “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
The play above is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The way he spins away from a sure tackler, he literally looked like he was floating. Hence, float like a butterfly. On the run, he shows good vision at the line of scrimmage and follows that up with some shiftiness to make the defense guess which direction he’s going. Then there’s the burst through the second level and the spin move to avoid contact.
Vision, Burst, Long Speed
With so much speed on the field, it’s important for running backs to have the ability to dissect the field fast enough to know where they should go. At the same time, they’ll need the long speed to outrun their opponents and some burst through the hole or at the second level to gain additional yardage.
In Dillon’s case, he shows these attributes on a wide range of plays. This touchdown against Wake Forest is a perfect example of what he can do and what kind of back he really is. Starting with the long speed, there will be times he gets caught from behind. The play above shows that. It’s understandable; he’s 6’0″ and 250 pounds. However, he shows good body control to stay in bounds as he stumbles into the end zone. The burst is there at the second level. He sees where the blocks develop with the pulling guard and tight end, and he explodes through the opening and makes defenders regret taking a bad angle when attacking him.
Tendency to Bounce Runs
With so much zone blocking from Boston College, it’s hard to decipher whether A.J. Dillon should bounce runs to the outside. Through three games, it’s clearly a tendency that he’ll have to break when at the next level. He lacks the speed to outrun every linebacker and edge defender in the NFL, so if he continues to bounce runs, it’ll lead to runs with no gains and possibly even negative plays.
Of course, the two clips I record are of him gaining positive yardage. But like I said, he’ll have to make this tendency to bounce runs to the outside more infrequent than where he’s at right now in the ACC. Focusing on the positives, though, Dillon reads the play behind the line and feels the need to bounce this run to the right. He makes the right decision judging by the positive yardage gained, and he even runs through contact. He does a really nice job exploding out of his cuts, which helps him run through contact and obtain that burst through the second level.
Bad angles from the defense really allow Dillon to do what he wants on this play. The play above is run to the weak side and to the boundary. Dillon goes outside and is able to break some arm tackles before trotting up the sideline for positive yardage. These runs don’t show much outside of his tendency to bounce runs to the outside.
During his time with Boston College, A.J. Dillon has been one of the most productive running backs in the ACC. Through two years, he has 527 carries for 2,697 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. His production was down as a sophomore compared to his true freshman season. That shouldn’t worry you, though, and despite losing his best offensive lineman, Chris Lindstrom, to the 2019 NFL Draft, the Eagles will bring back at least three starters up front.
Ben Petrula, John Phillips, and Alec Lindstrom were named to the Second-Team Offense or Third-Team Offense in Phil Steele’s Magazine Preseason All-ACC Selections. As for Dillon, he was the only player named to the First-Team Offense, and rightfully so. He’s the team’s best player and should have a productive junior season.
It would be shocking to see Dillon not declare for the 2020 NFL Draft when the season is over, but only time will tell. As for my final thoughts on him, it’s pretty simple. I project more success as a north-south runner than these runs that bounce towards the sidelines. His decisiveness and ability to explode out of his cuts make him so talented when getting through the second level. He has the ability to see the whole field and dissect where he needs to go or should go. He’s a big-bodied runner that will run through you or spin off contact. Through two seasons he only has eight receptions, so he’ll be limited as a pass catcher, but he has shown the willingness to take on blitzes and help maintain a clean pocket.
There’s no way that I’ll put an overall grade on the summer evaluation of a player, but there’s plenty to like about A.J. Dillon. The only thing that we can hope for is another productive season for the Eagles, no injuries, and the ability to break those bad habits on the field. Despite some flaws, he’s still relatively clean as a prospect, and he’ll certainly make defenses look silly with his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.