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Football: In First Responder Bowl, Joe Dillon driven to do even more for the Ragin’ Cajuns football

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 23, 2020

Beyond what’s to come Saturday – a date with UTSA at the First Responder Bowl in Dallas (2:30 p.m., ABC) – Joe Dillon isn’t sure what his future holds.

It could be more college football. It could be chasing what most college football players do, a shot at pro ball. Or it could be pursuing that other dream, the one that has him running a food truck.

All the sixth-year Ragin’ Cajuns outside linebacker from Tylertown, Mississippi, knows for sure is it’s been a long, wild ride already, and that while he’s put his body through a lot for UL (9-1) the past half-decade – there’s still more to do.

Personally, it’s that sack-and-a-half that have eluded him so far this season – and that would allow him to share the school record with two men he knows, Christian Ringo and Jeff Mitchell. Collectively, it’s ending 2020 on a high note by beating the Roadrunners of Conference USA.

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Beyond that, Dillon isn’t sure if a seventh season is in the cards or not. Like so many of UL’s other seniors who’ve been granted an extra season of NCAA eligibility due to the COVID-10 pandemic, he still has a decision to make.

And he won’t do it alone.

“I really don’t know,” Dillon said when asked what he’ll do. “I’m just focused on this one week right now, if it is my last season.”

It’s no easy call.

“You know me,” Dillon said. “You know how long I’ve been around this complex; that’s been for a really long time.”

Which is why he’ll seek support before deciding.

Pass-rushing is what Joe Dillon loves

UL recruiting:Class of 2021 Cajun signee bios

Dillon has been at UL since he was young, shy, freshman redshirting on the scout team in 2015, fresh out of Tylertown High, where he had 123 total tackles as a junior, 65 as a senior and was ranked as the No. 32 prospect in Mississippi by MaxPreps.com.

He made a splash in 2016, winning USA Freshman All-American honors, starting 8-of-13 games, making 12.5 tackles for loss including 7.0 sacks and helping the Cajuns get to the New Orleans Bowl.

Dillon had 4.5 more sacks in 2017, but played much of the year with a serious hip injury that ultimately led to major surgery. He had career-threatening avascular necrosis – death of bone tissue to blood supply interruption. It’s the same diagnosis 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson dealt with, and it wasn’t easy to overcome.

But Dillon did.

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He missed all of 2018, prompting the sixth season of eligibility.

But in 2019 he overcame the setback, appeared in all 14 games for 11-3 UL, helped the Cajuns beat Miami (Ohio) in the LendingTree Bowl, somehow managed a team-high 10.5 TFLs including 8.0 sacks and won second-team All-Sun Belt honors.

That left him 1.5 sacks shy of the mark (21) shared by original record-holder Mitchell, a longtime Louisiana state trooper who worked UL’s sideline detail early in Dillon’s Cajun career, and Ringo, an NFL defensive lineman who tied the record in 2014.

Joining them would mean a ton to Dillon.

“That’s big … to me, because that’s something I do,” he said. “That’s something I would label myself as: a good pass-rusher.”

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Ragin’ Cajuns team ball comes first

Dillon communicated with Ringo – who’s played 20 combined NFL games for Green Bay, Detroit, Cincinnati and Dallas, and currently is on the New Orleans Saints practice roster – via Instagram last summer.

Ringo encouraged Dillon to set a new standard.

“I told him I appreciated him,” Dillon said, “because during my recruiting process that’s who I’d seen playing all the time – him just being out there, doing what he (does).

“I told how I admired the way he played throughout his years at UL.”

As it’s turned, however, getting those last 1.5 sacks has been easier said than done. Limited to eight games due to COVID issues, and sharing time with Chauncey Manac, Dillon has 11 total tackles including 1.5 for loss this season.

Dillon does have four quarterback hurries too, but sacks simply haven’t come his way. Neither have many opportunities, a reality of the Cajun defense he accepts as a sacrifice to the big picture.

“I’m just playing team ball, you know?” Dillon said.

“Whatever I have to do to win, that’s the main thing. … Whatever I’ve got to do to win, that’s what I want to do.”

Which brings up next season.

If Dillon doesn’t get at least a piece of the record in Dallas, would motivate him for another season with UL?

The Cajuns have other sixth-year seniors – starting left guard Ken Marks, starting Will linebacker Ferrod Gardner – but seven college seasons could be a lot for anyone.

The Cajuns have multiple NFL prospects who must decide what to do, running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas and nose guard Tayland Humphrey among them. Already, senior quarterback Levi Lewis has said he’ll be back. Mitchell is likely to go. But Dillon?

He’ll seek that help before making his call.

“Me and my mom haven’t just sat down and had the actual conversation about me returning or not returning, me entering the (NFL) Draft or whatnot,” Dillon said.

“But, as of right now, I’m just enjoying this week I have left with this 2020 football team, and that’s all that’s really in the back of my mind, is just winning.”

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