GROTON, Mass. -- When the conversation turns to A.J. Dillon, such words as vision, physical, tough-minded, determined, instinctive and smart are usually the ones often mentioned.
Dillon, the sensational junior running back at Lawrence Academy, fits each of those terms to a T. Standing 6-foot, 230-pounds, he is the most electrifying and best-skilled running back in the Independent School League.
Now in this third season with the Spartans, the New London (Conn.) native is the driving force inside head coach Paul Zukauskas' luxuriant offense. That was never more evident than during Lawrence's season-opening 55-30 dismantling of Cheshire Academy last month.
Dillon shredded the Cats' defense, rushing for career-high 316 yards and 5 touchdowns. While Cheshire may not have been fully aware of Dillon's backfield proficiency due to the fact that they had never seen him before, teams within the ISL know him extremely well and at one time or another have all been burned by him.
When preparing for the Spartans, opposing teams will most likely design their defenses around Dillon in the faint hopes of slowing him down. Only on a couple of occasions have any been successful in fulfilling that mission.
Last season, as a sophomore, Dillon began turning heads after rushing for 1,321 yards and 21 touchdowns. Those numbers started drawing the attention from several major college programs.
So far, Dillon already has scholarship offers from Temple, Syracuse, Boston College, Virginia, Villanova, UMass, UConn and most recently Iowa. He is also gaining interest from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Duke, Maryland, Michigan State, Wake Forest, NC State, Cincinnati and Penn State, just to name a few.
"I haven't crossed any team out," said Dillon. "I'm still looking into seeing what options I have and I'm extremely grateful to have all of these opportunities thus far. I don't want to wait until my senior year to make a decision. I feel like I want to go into my senior year here already knowing where I am going to go. Right now I'm thinking the latest I'll make my decision will be in the spring."
Regardless, the recruiting process has been nothing short of a whirlwind for Dillon and his family. He says he tries not to think about it too much.
"It's hard to think about making a decision now," he said. "I have Coach Zukauskas, who played Division 1 at the college level (Boston College) and also in the NFL (Cleveland Browns) and I also have a great supporting cast with my family. Yes, there are times when I feel a bit overwhelmed or confused but I have a lot of people to lean on and I'm grateful for that.
"Even though I am not pressured to make a commitment right now, it is still a lot to think about. Sometimes it is hard to think about school or socializing. I'm just glad I have Coach Zukauskas and others who want to see me succeed which allows me to not feel so overwhelmed through this process."
Playing sparingly as a freshman with the varsity at New London High School in 2012, Dillon and his family felt it was time for a change of scenery. He transferred to Lawrence in 2013, repeating his freshman year. To this day, he says he has no regrets with the decision.
"I love everyone in New London and every time I go back there everyone is so proud of me," Dillon said. "Just because I'm away from home doesn't mean that I'm against New London. There is no backlash. When I met Coach Zukauskas and visited Lawrence, I immediately felt it was like family here. I also have Coach Zukauskas as an advisor. I really cannot say enough about the impact he has had on me. He is a tremendous supporter of mine. I think of him as a father when I am here."
After watching Dillon play at New London, Zukauskas continued to pursue him realizing the young prodigy had an unlimited ceiling as well as a plethora of gifted talents that could potentially transform him into a major force to be reckoned within his program. How right he was.
"Where A.J. is now is where I thought he would be," said Zukauskas, now in his fifth season with the Spartans. "You could see it early in his career. Even when he was at New London, you could see how special a player he was. Physically, he is a different looking kid than most. He has really taken advantage of the boarding school atmosphere here. He can recognize things emotionally and take advantage of them physically."
Dillon has also benefited from learning more about the game through his grandfather. College Football Hall of Famer and former Notre Dame great Thom Gatewood continues to keep close tabs on his grandson, offering him sound advice when needed. Gatewood was a star receiver for the Irish and led the team in receptions from 1969-1971.
"My grandfather has been a great influence on me," noted Dillon. "Football is his passion but he has always supported me whether I was running track, playing baseball or doing photography. He has also helped me a lot through my recruiting process. I remember after a game my freshman year here when he came into my dorm room. I remembered being hurt and started to feel woe is me.
"He came in and gave me a really good pep talk. We ended up watching game film and he showed me how to read linebackers, how to read other things and how to do things that I didn't know were part of the game. He has always inspired me to do more than just the average. He gave me the task of never going down on first contact. He always wants me to continue fighting for those extra yards. He also expects me to do well on the defensive side of the ball (at linebacker). He is a great role model to have and I am very lucky and blessed to have a role model like him."
It is no secret that Lawrence's offense centers around Dillon and rightfully so. It is almost a given that anytime Dillon has the ball in his hands, he is quite capable of breaking through an opposing defense and into the end zone. When you consider what he accomplished last season and currently season (837 yards, 10 TDs), that scenario holds true. In his freshman year with the Spartans, Dillon played in four games, finishing with 390 yards and 5 TDs.
"It is a physical and mental maturation process that happens and the great ones continue to get better and keep wanting to get better," Zukauskas said. "I think A.J. practices a lot different now then he did two years ago. He has the understanding that you cannot just show up for a game and think you are going run over somebody. Especially against the teams that we play. You need to execute your blocks and what he has been great at is letting blocks develop, knowing how the blocking schemes work and he tries to be an effective runner inside this system.
"It can very easily turn into the A.J. show with toss left or toss right but he is more than that and can do more than that. What is tough to coach, but what I think he has, is that vision. He really sees things develop in front of him. How to coach that is very difficult, but with him, I think it just comes naturally. To have that vision awareness, along with his athletic smarts, is what puts him above most.
"You cannot be a one trick pony on offense. You need to have options. When you have options with a great running game, it puts opposing defenses in some vulnerable positions. You have to take advantage of those options knowing that we have a special player like A.J. that we need to take advantage of. You have to have a little balance with the balance leaning towards a great player like A.J. The goal is to score points. You do that by starting with a great running game and using a player like him. Not only is A.J. a great player, he is also a great kid who has matured quite nicely during his time here."