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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: Mississippi State transfer RB Dillon Johnson is Washington’s ground game

Johnson is the program’s first 1,00-yard rusher since 2019.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon at Washington Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into next Monday’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against the No. 3 Texas Longhorns, junior Dillon Johnson has become the bell cow back for the rushing attack of the No. 3 Washington Huskies in his first season in Seattle, providing a focal point for Kalen DeBoer’s running game that split caries between two lead backs last season when the Huskies faced the Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl.

In fact, it’s not even close — standing at 6’0, 218 pounds, the do-it-all back has dominated the running back room with 231 snaps compared to the next highest with 41. Despite missing Week Two against Tulsa, Johnson has been able to accumulate 1,113 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the season, becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher for Washington since Salvon Ahmed in 2019.

That was the selling point for Johnson entering his fourth season, as Washington running backs coach Lee Marks was able to convince Johnson to leave his home state, pack his bags, and move across the country to the upper West Coast.

The Mississippi native grew up in Greenville and when it came time for him to play college ball, the three-star running back from St. Joseph stayed close to home to play for the late Mike Leach and the Bulldogs only two hours away in Starkville, where his son Dillon Johnson Jr. was born last year.

After three years under Leach, the two had a falling out that forced Johnson to enter the transfer portal ahead of his senior season.

“With that being said, since I am not very tough, and Leach is glad I’m leaving, I will be entering my name into the transfer portal with the hopes of finding a more fit playing environment for me,” Johnson wrote in his announcement leaving Mississippi State.

Johnson had undergone minor knee surgery during the 2022 season that never healed properly and required another procedure in April. Over a five-game stretch starting in mid-October, Johnson missed one game, received zero carries in another game, and only totaled 11 rushes.

Interestingly enough, despite Johnson’s decision to stay in his home state after graduating high school, the talented back made the decision to play his senior year in Seattle, 2,466 miles away from Starkville and his son DJ. Why?

“The biggest thing is we had [Michael] Penix from Florida [and] we had Wayne [Taulapapa], who’s obviously from Hawaii but came from Virginia.” Marks said. “So we’ve had guys who are not from the West Coast that ended up doing really, really well for us this year. That was an easy sell from that standpoint, just getting him interested in hearing what we had to say.”

Furthermore, the high-powered Huskies offense offered possible advantages for the Johnson in a system that allowed him to dominate a backfield.

“There are very few programs that are going to get you fully prepared for the next level like we can,” Marks said. “We’ll ask him to do everything.”

And the Huskies offered exactly that to the NFL hopeful running back with aspirations to support his young family with big league pay.

In Johnson’s first season with the Huskies, he has indeed been given the keys to the offense’s backfield after prospective starter Cameron Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason camp.

With the Bulldogs, Johnson played in 35 games over three seasons, carrying the ball 229 times for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also catching 149 passes for 864 yards and one score. In one year with the Huskies, he has now practically matched his career rushing total with Mississippi State in one season with the Huskies despite that missing one game and proving his toughness throughout the entire season by battling through injuries.

Johnson has tough legs that allow him to pick up tough yards or break off into the second level. PFF gives him an offensive grade of 89.1 and a rushing grade of 89.8 thanks in part to 15 rushes for over 15 yards this season for a total of 418 yards and a long of 53.

Although it is not often used in this scheme with the bevy of talented receivers on the roster, Johnson can be an effective pass catcher out of the backfield, with 19 receptions on 20 targets for a total of 148 yards.

Johnson also added a level of pass protection for Penix behind an already stout offensive line as an impressive blocking running back in the backfield.

Overall, moving away from home has been a great decision for Johnson. He has flown up draft boards, from undrafted to a potential sixth round pick and the No. 6 running back on Mel Kiper’s draft board, he has a conference championship under his belt, and his undefeated Huskies now face off against the Longhorns in the first round of the College Football Playoff. If DJ were old enough to understand what’s going on, I’m sure he would be proud.