Dillon Johnson, a young man who starred locally at St. Joseph Catholic School, showed early on that he would not be a typical freshman on the Mississippi State football team.
It was in August when young Johnson, a running back, started being noticed.
During preseason practice, the Bulldogs were working on a drill where two players went against each other in a circle. The drill is sometimes called king-of-the-ring.
Not surprisingly, Erroll Thompson, a 250-pound tough-as-nails linebacker considered one of the best defenders in college football, was dominating the drill.
Until, Johnson stepped in.
“I went into the ring and just drove him back. I must have driven him 10 or 15 yards, and the defense was going crazy,” Johnson said. “It was wild.”
Moments later Johnson and Thompson would go at it again.
“He knocked my helmet straight off the second time we did it, so he won that time. But, I think I showed everyone I wasn’t scared. After that, my confidence just kept growing.”
Johnson’s collisions with Thompson were noticed by Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach.
“Coach Leach came over and told me that I have a big heart, and then he told me that ‘I was going to be a great football player for him,”Johnson said. “That was really cool. To have the head coach of the football team come up and tell me, a freshman, that was really great and really inspiring,” Johnson said.
Once the season started, it didn’t take long for the kid from Greenville to make an impression. In the Bulldogs’ second game of the season against Arkansas, Johnson rushed in his first touchdown of his collegiate career. The TD came from six yards out on a fourth down in the third quarter.
“That touchdown was my favorite moment of the season. It was a home game, and then I heard all those cowbells of all the fans who were cheering me. It was unbelievable just to think that I scored in an SEC game. It is something that I will always remember,” Johnson said.
While the number of fans at Davis Wade Stadium was limited this season, there were still plenty of Johnsons cheering Dillon on at each game, including Dillon’s mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
Johnson’s biggest family reunion, was when he got to face his brother, Brice, in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 28.
Johnson saw playing action in all 10 of Mississippi State’s regular season games this season, and his biggest game was when he scored two touchdowns against the Georgia Bulldogs. Johnson finished second on the team in rushing for the season, carrying the ball for 172 yards and four touchdowns. He showed his versatility by catching 144 yards of passes.
“I consider my first year a success, but I still have a lot to learn,” Johnson said. “In college football, the speed of the game is much quicker. Everything is so fast. You have to be in the right place at the right time or someone is going to get hurt. I never had to block much at St. Joseph. They basically just gave me the ball and let me make a play, but here I have to block all the time, and it is new for me.”
“I think one of the reasons for my success as a freshman is that I am the biggest running back we have on the team, so they knew they could definitely use me.”
Johnson is currently in Greenville for the holidays, but he will soon be back on the gridiron when the Bulldogs play Tulsa on Jan. 31 in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
“We won our last game against Missouri so it is important that we keep the momentum and finish the season on a winning note,” he said.