CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: With UW Huskies RB Cam Davis out, watch Dillon Johnson

Aug 24, 2023, 2:09 PM

UW Huskies transfer Dillon Johnson...

Dillon Johnson, now of the UW Huskies, runs for Mississippi State against Georgia in 2022. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

(Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Dillon Johnson was so upset, he didn’t want to finish practice.

He had spent the offseason working out with UW Huskies teammate Cam Davis. The two running backs — and next-door neighbors — pushed one another, learned from one another and schemed up goals for the season. Davis, a fifth-year junior, was finally healthy, and poised to enter the 2023 season as Washington’s lead back for the first time. He looked bigger and faster, ready to build on last year’s 13-touchdown output. Coaches raved about him, their clear No. 1 tailback in a crowded room.

Then, at some point during Washington’s final scrimmage of preseason camp, Davis went down with a lower-body injury. UW coach Kalen DeBoer later confirmed: Davis will miss the 2023 season.

Observing it in real time, Johnson said, “It hurt me. I was crying. I went into the training room, tried to talk to him, and I just broke down in front of him.”

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It’s a major blow for Davis, a four-star recruit in the 2019 class who complemented Wayne Taulapapa in the backfield last season, even after missing most of offseason training while recovering from an injury sustained in late 2021. And while the Huskies are fortunate to have several available bodies remaining at running back, Davis’ injury does introduce some doubt as to what the rotation might look like.

“It’s a huge loss,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “There’s no other way to describe it. He was the heart and soul of how we’re supposed to operate. It hurts. It hurts a ton. Everybody in the offensive room and the team, honestly, their heart skipped a beat when they knew he was out.

“He is the epitome of what we want our guys to be. It will be very difficult to replace him, and get somebody to line up back there with the production Cam would have had.”

The conversation likely starts with Johnson, an experienced runner — and pass-catcher — who looks every bit of his listed size of 6-foot, 218 pounds. In three seasons playing for the late Mike Leach at Mississippi State, he rushed for 1,198 yards (5.2 per carry) and caught 149 passes for 864 yards.

Washington secured his commitment and then fended off a late push from Auburn to get him on campus. Johnson played through a knee injury to finish the 2022 season, and tried to come back from it in time to participate in Washington’s spring practices. That didn’t go so well. Johnson missed most of spring and needed a clean-up procedure this offseason.

Coaches have brought him along slowly, though Johnson has mixed in more and more with the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses. He says he feels good, but is he ready for primary tailback duties, if that’s what the Huskies need?

“I think he could do that right now,” Grubb said. “Full game, I think we’re close. He’s getting stronger every day, but we’re getting there. But if he had 15-20 touches in a game, I don’t think he’d have a problem with that.”

There are other candidates, too. Fourth-year sophomore Will Nixon built out his frame and looks more ready to withstand a season’s worth of contact. Sixth-year senior Richard Newton sees regular reps. Daniyel Ngata, the Arizona State transfer, might get a longer look with Davis out. Fourth-year sophomore Sam Adams II saw the field for the first time last season, taking 13 carries for 40 yards, and has broken a few runs in practice over the past year.

“I think for all the running backs, it’s the same — getting ready for Saturdays,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘hey, guys’ roles have changed.’ If we call on you to be out there on the field, we expect you to get the job done.

“As far as getting into who I expect roles to be bigger (for) — it’s whoever’s playing the best, whoever’s going to help us win, at the end of the day. Dillon’s obviously here now with us and he’s doing a really, really good job, and I’m looking forward to all the running backs getting after it against Boise.”

Johnson’s personality, at least, seems ready-made for the spotlight. He held court with reporters last week, detailing his journey from Starkville to Seattle. His son, Dillon Jr., celebrated his first birthday on Aug. 8. It’s not easy being away from him, Johnson said, but he’ll see him soon: the little guy is moving to Seattle on the first of the month, along with Johnson’s girlfriend, Jalyn. The two have been together since seventh grade. They’ll be at the Boise State game, where Dillon Jr. will watch his dad play football for the first time.

“At Mississippi State, those cowbells will blow your ears off,” Johnson said, “so I didn’t want to put him through that.”

Johnson won three consecutive state championships at St. Joseph Catholic School in Greenville, Miss., roughly a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Starkville. He entered the transfer portal and ultimately chose Washington over Auburn, despite the latter’s proximity to home.

It wasn’t an easy decision.

“But I had to understand that in life, some things you’ve got to do to better yourself and your future, especially for my son,” Johnson said. “I felt like this was the best opportunity for me and my future, for sure.”

UW’s offense, he says, is “something different.”

“People on the outside really can’t understand fully how special this offense is going to be,” he said. “You’ve just got to be there, to really understand how special this group is.”

He reiterated Thursday: “Nobody’s doing what we’re doing. I know that for an absolute fact. That’s why I think it’s special. We’ve got a lot of motioning, a lot of moving, a lot of stuff that we do that’s unique. It’s unique in its own way, for sure.”

Johnson has two years of eligibility left, and leaves open the possibility he could use both. It would be ideal, for him and his family, to have the kind of 2023 season that will allow him to pursue an NFL roster spot. Being a father makes him practice harder, and informs every decision he makes. “He’s brought some different things out of me,” Johnson said.

“I feel like I’ve shown the scouts a lot, but not everything that I can do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be a big year for me if I just stay humble and do what the coaches tell me to do, and just stay in the playbook. I think that’s the biggest thing, just knowing what I’m supposed to do and where I’m supposed to be at on the field.”

He already knows he’s supposed to be in Seattle.

“I wanted to add to my game, on top of being in a different environment, different culture, something that’s completely different from the south,” Johnson said. “And I just wanted to step out of my comfort zone.”

Dawgs add RB depth

Washington also added a running back to its depth this week, as freshman Tybo Rogers, who had been serving an indefinite suspension, was present at the team’s open practice (so was fellow freshman Diesel Gordon, a safety, who had been similarly suspended). Rogers opened eyes this spring as an early enrollee, impressing coaches and performing in a way that suggested he might contribute right away.

Then came preseason camp, and the suspension for violating team rules. Even with Davis out and the depth still seemingly unsettled, Rogers now faces an uphill climb toward seeing the field this season.

That part, Grubb says, is up to Rogers.

“That’s solely in his hands,” Grubb said. “All the tools and the assistance will be there to make him a great player this year. He does not have to wait. If he’s able to maintain team rules and do things the way he’s supposed to do and live up to his potential, he’ll be out there helping us.

“But these last three weeks, two and a half weeks, he hurt the football team. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. He hurt the team. He knows that, and he can’t live in that. He’s got to move on and move forward, and that’s what we’re trying to do with him. So we’ll see how he does with it.”

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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Caple: With UW Huskies RB Cam Davis out, watch Dillon Johnson