Dillon Johnson never envisioned himself playing all the way out in the Pacific Northwest.
Just two days after the former Mississippi State running back entered the transfer on December 8 portal it didn’t take long for that to change.
Washington boasted the seventh-highest scoring offense in the college football (39.7) in Kalen DeBoer’s first season as head coach.
UW did most of its damage on the left shoulder of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who broke every major passing record in school history for a single season. Penix finished first in passing yards per game (357), second passing yards (4,641) and tied for 13th with 31 touchdown passes, two more than he had the previous four seasons combined.
Even with the statistical results and an 11-2 record – only the fifth time in school history the program has won 11 games in a season – DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb entered the offseason knowing UW could improve in a few areas.
The Huskies were the only team to finish in the top 15 in rushing touchdowns as a team in 2022 while having less than 500 carries – 100 fewer, to be exact.
UW signed a pair of running backs during the early signing period in December; Arizona State redshirt sophomore Daniyel Ngata and Tybo Rogers, a three-star recruit out of Bakersfield (Calif.).
Johnson, a 6-foot, 215-pound junior with two seasons of eligibility left, was the final piece.
Lee Marks, UW’s running backs coach, reached out to Johnson the second day he was officially in the transfer portal and laid the foundation for Grubb and DeBoer to help bring the talented back to Seattle.
“I’m just going to be honest; I never pictured myself being at Washington,” Johnson told Cascadia Sports after announcing his transfer to UW on January 3.
“Just because it was so far away from home. You know how that is when you’re a southern guy and you go to the West Coast, it’s just completely different. It’s a whole ‘nother world over there.”
Johnson made the decision to take a visit out to Seattle to see what the program had to offer with his own eyes.
He watched a practice before the team traveled down to San Antonio, Texas for the Valero Alamo Bowl in December and spend a large amount of his time on campus with three players; Jeremiah Martin (edge), Wayne Taulapapa (running back) and Rome Odunze (wide receiver).
Thought the three players made a significant impact on Johnson, he highlighted Grubb as the one who sealed the deal.
“It was a great visit. Coach DeBoer, great, awesome guy. But the guy that just really separated everything was really coach Grubb, the OC,” Johnson said.
The Missing Piece
Prior to his visit Grubb had already built a strong relationship with Johnson.
As a result the two spent a majority of their time diving into how Johnson would fit into the Huskies offense.
“He was showing me the schemes, the way the run the ball. Inside zone. Outside zone. Trap. Pulling guards. Pulling tackles. All that type of stuff,” Johnson said of his conversation with Grubb.
“It’s just so awesome to see, on top of the way they use their running backs. They put them out wide. I’m very good at catching, you know. I do have 150 receptions in my career, so I think I’m pretty good at catching the ball. I think he’ll be able to show my whole skill set.”
Johnson finished with the second most receptions by a running back (47) in 2022 while being targeted 52 times, tied for fifth most among running backs this past season.
In his three seasons in Starkville, Johnson was targeted 163 times and only had five drops – four of which came in 2021. He’s never had more than one in a game in his career.
“I feel like, in my opinion, I can do everything,” Johnson said.
“I feel I can catch. I can block. I can run. I feel like I have really good vision. And I feel like I can catch the ball really, really well.”
Dawgs Over Tigers
Johnson cut his recruitment down to two schools, Auburn and UW, before he chose to leave the Southeastern Conference.
Cadillac Williams, the Tigers’ running back coach, was close with Johnson and that relationship was a major factor in the Mississippi State back having Auburn in his final list.
However, having played three seasons in the SEC, Johnson wanted a new challenge.
“I absolutely love him. I don’t know who doesn’t like Cadillac. I was close to going,” Johnson said.
“But I think the thing that really separated them – my parents and I had this conversation – was really just my body. I don’t want to make it sound bad or anything like that. Just the wear and tear of the SEC. I’ve been in it three years. I felt like I’m a proven guy.”
Johnson suffered a knee injury week seven against Kentucky, a 27-17 defeat for the Bulldogs, but only missed one game.
Prior to the injury Johnson had run for 6.5 yards per carry. In his mind, had he not gotten hurt, Johnson would have elected to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Instead, it’s Washington’s gain.
“I feel like Washington, they’re already set. They’re Playoff team,” Johnson said.
“They feel like they were missing one piece to the offense, and it was really me.”