Boston College RB AJ Dillon successfully created own legacy by not following grandfather Thom Gatewood's college path

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

In less than three seasons, AJ Dillon has already accomplished his goal.

As a high school prospect out of Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., the four-star recruit had offers from all over the country. A scholarship offer to play for Notre Dame meant Dillon could follow the path of his maternal grandfather Thom Gatewood.

During Gatewood’s Irish career, which in 2015 was deemed worthy of the College Football Hall of Fame, the former wide receiver established Notre Dame records for single-season receptions (77) in 1970 and career receptions (157) in 1971. But Dillon wanted to create his own legacy somewhere else.

In March 2016, Dillon gave his verbal commitment to Michigan out of a personal top five that included Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Florida State and Virginia. Nine months later, Dillon opted to stay closer to home and attend Boston College instead.

In less than three full seasons with the Eagles, the 6-foot, 250-pound running back has already carved his name in program record books. He holds the Boston College records for career rushing yards (4,148) and career rushing touchdowns (37).

“As much as I respect and appreciate and look up to him,” Dillon said of Gatewood earlier this week, “I wanted to be able to create my own legacy somewhere else, write my own story and not always kind of be compared to him.”

Dillon can’t avoid the comparisons this week as Boston College (5-5) plays in the updated version of Notre Dame Stadium where his grandfather set records. A trip to take on the CFP No. 16 Irish (8-2) in South Bend comes with plenty of expectations.

“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Dillon said. “I’ve been there a couple times before: once for camp and once for a visit. It’s going to be pretty cool — a great venue, a lot of history, big rivalry between BC and Notre Dame over the years. It’s an honor to be able to play there.”

Gatewood, who moved back to South Bend in 2017, will be in attendance Saturday. So will close to 50 family members and friends of Gatewood’s coming into town from 12 different states. Many of them are Notre Dame fans and graduates, but they’ll be cheering for Dillon this weekend.

“This game I’m going with my heart and my family and my blood,” Gatewood said. “I’ll be adorned in BC garb.”

Saturday won’t be the first time Dillon will play against his grandfather’s alma mater. Boston College hosted Notre Dame in Chestnut Hill, Mass., for the third game of Dillon’s freshman season in 2017. In the 49-20 Boston College loss, Dillon rushed 16 times for 58 yards.

Gatewood didn’t make the trip that day. He didn’t want to be a distraction. Gatewood isn’t concerned about that being an issue this weekend.

Said Gatewood: “His attitude is, ‘I have my own legend, Grandpa. It’s in a different place. I’m coming here as if this is just another opponent. I won’t be fazed by Touchdown Jesus or the Dome or so forth and so on. It’s not a tourist attraction for me. It’s business.’”

Two weeks prior to Dillon’s last meeting with Notre Dame, Gatewood attended Dillon’s first career game at Northern Illinois. He also went out to Boston College this year for the season opener against Virginia Tech. Boston College won both of those games.

“So far when we attend in person, they win,” Gatewood said. “I’m not saying anything, but I’m just letting you know.”

Built for football

Thom Gatewood didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school. His grandson, AJ Dillon, started playing when he was 6 years old.

Gatewood got a kick out of watching young kids playing football. The sight of their little arms and legs flailing around while wearing oversized shoulder pads and helmets made him laugh. But he knew his grandson could be special.

“AJ was always fast,” Gatewood said. “AJ was always strong. The kid had great shoulders and biceps as a little four year old. He was sort of destined to do something. He loved football.”

By the time Dillon was a sophomore in high school, he started collecting college scholarship offers. He had already proven to be a promising prospect with more than 1,300 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in his sophomore season at Lawrence Academy. Dillon followed that up with 1,887 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior.

Dillon verbally committed to Michigan in March of 2016. A little more than a month later, he impressed at The Opening Regional camp in New Jersey. Steve Wiltfong, the director of recruiting for 247Sports still remembers that impressive showing.

“He had some big testing numbers,” Wiltfong said. “He was a specimen. He was big.”

At that camp, a 6-0, 239-pound Dillon ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds, finished the 20-yard shuttle in 4.29 second and jumped 38.3 inches in the vertical test.

Dillon’s senior season didn’t go as planned. After rushing for more than 600 yards and 12 touchdowns in the first four games at Lawrence Academy, Dillon suffered a season-ending leg injury. Still, Dillon kept his label as a four-star recruit.

Rivals ranked Dillon as the No. 20 running back, but not among the top 250 overall players in the 2017 class. He was slated by 247Sports as the No. 14 athlete and No. 234 overall.

The athlete designation meant 247Sports wasn’t certain if Dillon would play a different position than running back in college. With his size and experience playing linebacker in high school as well, a future on defense wasn’t an unreasonable projection. With modern offenses coveting well-rounded running backs adept in the passing game, big running backs like Dillon come with questions.

“For AJ, he tested so well and the film was good,” Wiltfong said. “(Former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner) Derrick Henry tested off the charts too. If you get those guys that are high-level testers with the shuttle and the explosiveness, they can excel.

“Certainly AJ Dillon could probably play linebacker. I’m not even saying they’re wrong. But he’s a pretty damn good running back.”

Big back, big production

AJ Dillon insisted only one college coaching staff made it clear to him that he was being recruited as a linebacker. That was Rutgers.

Yet the potential of him becoming a college linebacker has followed him for so long.

“After I decommitted from Michigan,” Dillon said, “I’m pretty sure that was a narrative that went around because people didn’t like the fact that I did that.”

There may be some truth to the linebacker narrative. Even his grandfather thought Notre Dame could have moved Dillon to linebacker had he joined the Irish program.

In the same year that Dillon enrolled at Boston College, Notre Dame’s roster featured junior running backs Josh Adams, who left for the NFL after rushing for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, and Dexter Williams, who rushed for 995 yards in nine games in 2018.

When Dillon committed to Michigan in 2016, Brian VanGorder was still Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.

“They thought they were relatively deep at running back at the time,” Gatewood said. “(Former running backs coach) Autry Denson loved AJ. AJ really liked him. So they obviously were talking running back.”

But at the same time, Gatewood knows current head coach Brian Kelly’s knack for identifying position switches for players to address team needs. It’s something Gatewood’s coach at Notre Dame, Ara Parseghian, did well too.

Dillon said used the advice he received from Gatewood — to focus on academics, athletics and atmosphere in the recruiting process — to eventually settle on Boston College. Once he joined the Eagles, Dillon didn’t have to wait long to make an impact.

In Dillon’s freshman season, he turned 300 carries into 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns and was named ACC Rookie of the Year. He rushed for 1,107 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games last season. He’s already rushed for 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games this season.

As for Notre Dame, the Irish have been stuck looking for a No. 1 running back this season with Tony Jones Jr. emerging in the middle of the season but slowing down following a rib injury and Jafar Armstrong unable to find a consistent role following a four-game absence with an abdomen injury. Combined they’ve rushed for 681 yards and five touchdowns with Jones accounting for 611 of the yards and all five touchdowns.

Though Notre Dame’s offense uses more spread offense formations than Boston College’s more traditional pro-style offense, Wiltfong still thinks Dillon would look good in Notre Dame’s backfield.

“I don’t see why not,” Witflong said. “If anything, I think he’d be really good in Notre Dame’s offense the way that they spread defenses out. It would be tough to load the box against him. He’s a force that can run. He’s a pro. When you’re a pro, you can run in any offense.”

With Dillon carrying the ball in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, it could serve as a glimpse of what could have been. Gatewood certainly wouldn’t have been upset seeing his grandson playing for the Irish. But the decision has worked out for Dillon, who needs just 455 yards to break the career rushing mark in the ACC.

Saturday won’t be about what ifs for Dillon. It will be more about if Notre Dame can tackle him.

“At this point of my career, I definitely see myself as an all-purpose back,” Dillon said. “I can run, catch, pass block. So as far as where I’d fit in an offense, I wouldn’t really be concerned. I do whatever the job is asked of me.

“I just try to put my team in the best position to win. So here (at Boston College), whatever type of offense we’re going to run is what I’m going to run and do my job at a high level. If I were there (at Notre Dame), I would try to do the same.”

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AJ Dillon Virginia TechBoston College running back AJ Dillon (2) rushed for 81 yards and one touchdown in his 2019 season opener against Virginia Tech with his grandfather, Notre Dame legend Thom Gatewood, in attendance.
Running back AJ Dillon (2) already holds the Boston College career rushing touchdowns record with 37 touchdowns in less than three full seasons.
Close to 50 friends and family members of former Notre Dame wide receiver Thom Gatewood are expected to be in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday to watch his grandson, Boston College running back AJ Dillon (2) play against the Irish.