Outside expectations don’t bother Boston College back A.J. Dillon mostly because he keeps a running list of his own almost everywhere he goes.
A year ago, when the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference barely had the faintest clue about who he was, Dillon had a checklist taped to his bed.
He crossed them off one by one in a breakout season that made him the easy choice for ACC Freshman of the Year. Now he’s pegged as the conference’s preseason player of the year and, naturally, he’s still got his checklist handy.
Actually, multiple checklists.
“They’re on my locker, on my bed, in my backpack, and right on my wallpaper on my computer,” he said.
The buzz around Boston College football starts with the curiosity about what Dillon will do for a follow-up after smashing the Eagles’ freshman rushing record with 1,589 yards. That same buzz made the atmosphere Friday at BC’s first preseason practice much different than years past.
“We talked about it in the spring with our team: We want to take the next step,” said Eagles coach Steve Addazio. “How do you take the next step? What is the next step? It’s a way you approach it, and we have to look at how we can improve to take the next step.”
In five seasons under Addazio, the Eagles have put together four seven-win seasons and gone to four bowl games.
The challenge they now face is pushing through into the next tier of the top-heavy ACC.
With a slim margin for error, identifying and improving weaknesses — from sudden-change situations to third-down run defense — will be critical in making that leap.
“We’re trying to take all the things that we have identified that were things that we need to improve and we’re systematically attacking those so that the whole team can see, ‘OK, this is what we worked on, this is how we got better at it, and that’s how we’re going to take another step,’ ” Addazio said.
Christening the $52.6 million Fish Field House, the Eagles were nearly at full strength. The only player unable to practice was offensive lineman Elijah Johnson, still recovering from a knee injury.
Quarterback Anthony Brown made his return after suffering a season-ending knee injury last November. Center Jon Baker, who missed all but one game last season because of a knee injury, was also back on the field.
“What we try to do on Day 1 is keep things vanilla,” Addazio said. “On defense, we’re not running like blitzes and pressures and movements and twists. Just kind of playing base and zone coverage.
“And on offense, keeping it kind of vanilla — vanilla formations, vanilla plays — to let everybody focus on their fundamentals. We keep that going for about two days then, little by little, start integrating in some install of more sophistication on offense, defense.”
For Dillon, he said the difference between last year and this year was “night and day.”
“I know what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s like, kind of, stress on each play because I know what I’m doing, but it’s a lot more kind of careful, concentrated reps, trying to get as much as I can out of each rep, making sure I dot my I’s, cross my T’s.”
For as splashy as his freshman season may have been, he said he’s already turned the page. He’ll go into this season as a known commodity, but said he’s eager to showcase a broader skill set.
“I’m the type of person to never really be complacent or satisfied with anything,” he said. “Even in high school, I always wanted to be better. People might know me this year, but I go into it like it’s Day 1, like I went into it last year. I have a lot to prove. Nothing’s given.
“It’s a new year, new team, new season, so I’m just as excited to show people who I am. I have a lot more tools and things that I’ve developed. So I’m excited to put that all on display.”
He’s embracing the hype that’s already come his way before the season, but put it in proper perspective.
“Something I feel like we do really well — and that kind of starts with our coaches and comes down to us — is handling the external factors,” Dillon said. “Expectations, I don’t really worry about besides my own personal expectations.
“I have goals, but the only expectations and goals I really worry about are my own. Everything else from the outside perspective — good or bad — I don’t really pay much mind to it, and that’s the model from top down throughout our program.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.