As Boston College was going through preparation for the First Responders Bowl last winter, running back A.J. Dillon took an inventory of his two years as an Eagle, bypassed all the yards and awards he had racked up in two seasons, and searched for ways he could squeeze more out of his game.
The one place where there was glaring room for improvement was obvious.
He was one of the biggest threats in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a ball carrier. But if the Eagles faced a third-down situation and needed him on the field, he hadn’t proven himself a proficient enough pass-catcher to be a threat out of the backfield.
That had to change. And this year, possibly his last at BC, had to be the year to make it happen.
“I realized I really needed to take the next step in my game,” Dillon said. “Less, I guess, about myself and more about becoming a leader. And that doesn’t necessarily translate to stats so much, but I mean being involved in the passing game, whether it’s catching the ball, blocking.”
While Dillon’s rushing numbers this season have been modest (167 yards, 40 carries), he sees the three catches he’s hauled in for 63 yards and a touchdown as a leap in the progression he’s aiming for as a junior. It’s more than the grabs; it’s the signal that he’s a constant in the Eagles offense, no matter the down.
“That garners respect from my teammates, and them knowing that, when I’m out there, I’m going to make sure that it all happens,” Dillon said. “I’m going to do my best, is the best feeling I can ask for.”
As a freshman, Dillon barely saw the field on third down. With no catches, he never factored into the Eagles passing attack. The plan was to start incorporating him last season. He caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Brown in the season opener against UMass that appeared to be a sign of things to come. But a high-ankle sprain limited much of what he could do the rest of the season. He caught eight passes all year. Once the season ended, his primary focus was on getting healthy. After that, his hands became a priority.
“Honestly, he’s been working at it every single day,” Brown said. “When I say every day, I actually mean every day. So I feel his confidence is just through the roof. He feels like he can catch anything. He’s actually asking for passing plays now. It’s excellent to see his confidence, and I’m happy for him right now.”
Dillon’s involvement in the passing game so far this season has been gradual, but the results he’s gotten through the first two games have been encouraging for an Eagles offense that believes it has a number of different ways to generate the chunk plays it values so much. He dipped his toe in the water against Virginia Tech in the season opener with a 9-yard grab. But against Richmond last week, the Eagles opened the playbook got a glimpse of the type of weapon Dillon could be out of the backfield. Early in the second quarter, Dillon found space in the right-side flat, made a clean catch on a pass from Brown, and broke upfield for a 42-yard touchdown.
“He looked great catching the ball,” said Eagles coach Steve Addazio. “It’s really starting to eye-pop to me. He’s doing a great job with it, that and protection.”
Addazio’s philosophy leans toward workhorse running backs. In his two years at Temple, his primary backs caught a total of 21 passes. Since he got to BC, only two players have had more than 50 carries and 10 catches in a single season (Marcus Outlow, 2014; Jon Hilliman, 2017). But Addazio said there are ways to scheme Dillon into the passing game.
“I think there’s a lot of ways to get the ball in the air,” Addazio said. “There’s screens, underneath routes against the linebackers. We’re doing all those. Usually, there’s a lot of check-downs to backs. So I think screens and check-downs are where you’re going to see those guys catch a lot of balls or can catch a lot of balls.
“So I think being on the field on third down. And A.J.’s on the field more than third down. So you’re going to see more of that. Sometimes our first- and second-down game is a heavy play-action game. They can have a tendency — there are checkdowns, but there’s such a heavy play fake, that it’s down the field a little bit.That’s been good.”
By throwing himself into the passing game as a receiver and a blocker, Dillon can add facets that lift him from the bruising back that’s already caught eyes around the NFL to an every-down back and an all-around threat.
Dillon said, “This year I feel like I’ve taken that next step.”