No single Ragin’ Cajuns football player is more excited about the start of the 2019 UL season than Joe Dillon.
He had the sport taken away, with an injury that proved difficult to diagnose, and faced the very real possibility that his promising career was over.
“It was tough,” Dillon said. “It felt awful. It felt like I was going through some depression at times.”
Now, more than 16 months after a complex surgery on his hip and after a long rehabilitation period — nearly half of a year on crutches — he’s healthy and ready to prove something to a Cajuns coaching staff that’s still new to him.
Not that the UL staff needs any proof that the 6-foot-3, 232-pound outside linebacker can be a difference-maker for a unit that struggled at times last season.
“Joe had a tremendous reputation as a playmaker, and a guy who could make impactful plays in a game when we first got here,” said coach Billy Napier, who opened his second preseason camp with the Cajuns on Friday. “The thing I appreciate about Joe is he’s an alpha male now … he’s got an opinion and an attitude.”
He’s also got a voice, and that’s something not many people knew he had back in 2015 and 2016. After redshirting out of Tylertown (Mississippi) High in his first season, Dillon made a huge impact, an All-American impact, in his first playing season. As a defensive end, he led UL’s down linemen in tackles (51), tackles for losses (12½) and sacks (seven) in earning USA Today Freshman All-America honors. He was the LSWA’s Freshman of the Year and was a second-team pick on the defensive line on the All-Louisiana and All-Sun Belt Conference teams.
Those honors didn’t come from being verbal. Dillon was notable for quietly going about his business, even through his 2017 sophomore season when he also led the team in sacks (five) despite nagging injuries that limited his snaps more and more as a 5-7 season wound to a close and resulted in a coaching change.
By that time, Dillon was less worried about impressing his new coaches than he was trying to get healthy. A series of treatments and therapies proved ineffective, and he eventually underwent surgery in late March while his teammates were going through spring drills.
“It was a big procedure,” he said, “the hip bone, all the muscles around it, all the tissues around it. It wasn’t just one thing.”
It was enough things that his football future was in doubt.
“When you talk about Joe, you think that the future really isn’t promised,” said UL strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke. “You’re getting different reports from different doctors, saying maybe you can play again one day, and then maybe you can’t play again. That takes a toll on a competitor’s mindset and attitude.
“But Joe wasn’t trying to hear that. He had a different plan on how he wanted this story to finish.”
His motivation came from different areas. He wasn’t on the 110-man roster for last year’s preseason drills because he was an unknown factor, and during the year he watched from the sideline and saw a Cajuns defense seemingly always one play away from stopping a drive and getting the ball back to an offense that was churning out solid numbers.
Still, the Cajuns won the Sun Belt West Division and played in the league’s inaugural championship game. Dillon knew in his heart that he might have made a difference in the 30-19 loss at Appalachian State in the title game and the disappointing 41-24 loss to Tulane in the Cure Bowl.
“That’s every athlete, if you care about what you’re doing,” he said, “but I kept thinking if I was out there, how big of a difference would it be. Maybe I could have made just a little bit of difference in what happened.”
Dillon’s also acutely aware that he’s never made a tackle or fought off a block for the current coaching staff, and that his contributions in last year’s 7-7 season were mostly verbal.
“Ever since they got here, and I knew I wasn’t playing, that was my one thought,” he said. “I was going to make sure when I got back, I was going to show them what I’m actually capable of. They’d heard about what I can do, they’ve probably seen it on film, but I want to show them in person myself.”
He’ll get that chance, and Hocke said that Dillon deserves most of the credit for getting back to full health over the last year.
“It really does take a village,” Hocke said, “and a lot of people did a tremendous job helping him get back. But first and foremost it was Joe Dillon. Through last year and through the off-season, he went through the whole regimen and he moved around some good (weight lifting) numbers. When we got here in 2018, I kept hearing Joe Dillon this and Joe Dillon that, and I never got to watch him compete because of the injury stuff. So now I’m excited and happy for him. No one’s worked harder at getting back and putting himself in a position to compete.”
Napier said Dillon, a redshirt junior (he’s already received his NCAA injury hardship waiver), went through a modified spring and had an outstanding summer. More important, he and the Cajuns staff saw a different personality emerge.
“It’s not just his ability,” said UL defensive coordinator Ron Roberts. “He’s obviously a good player, but Joe brings an alpha male role into the room. He’s been there, our kids respect him when he talks, and that’s huge in the defensive room.”
Napier is ready to see more.
“I know Joe’s a great athlete and he’s going to make plays,” Napier said. “What I’m excited about is the step forward he took in the summer relative to his actions matching up with his words, so that when he does speak he’s got credibility. One thing we challenged him with was telling him you’re one of the guys that can make a tremendous impact from a leadership perspective. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Needless to say, Dillon is, too.
“Last year I couldn’t compete,” Dillon said. “I wasn’t sure if I would be playing football anymore. The coaches told me I needed to become a verbal leader because I wasn’t capable of going out there and doing it. I couldn’t lead by example then. Now I try to motivate people by doing the right things, being in the right position, always being in alignment and never seeing things negatively. Now I have to lead by example.”