VOL. 133 | NO. 158 | Friday, August 10, 2018
Memphis running back Sam Craft (11) rushes up-field through the Temple defense during the second quarter of a 2016 game between the Temple Owls and Memphis Tigers at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. The Tigers defeated the Owls 34-27. (File/Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Old football bromide: “A team makes its biggest improvement between the first game and the second game … ” But for Memphis Tiger seniors Sam Craft and Jackson Dillon, it’s more like, “Getting from the first game to the second game would be a HUGE improvement.”
For Craft, an all-purpose offensive athlete from Memphis, and Dillon, a wild mustang of an outside linebacker from Ringling, Oklahoma, this will be their third – and final – chance to get in that last year of football when the 2018 season starts Sept. 1 against Mercer.
Craft lost most of his 2016 season with back and hamstring injuries, was granted a medical redshirt year for 2017, then tore a knee ligament in preseason practice. The NCAA has again granted another redshirt year.
“I had already graduated, and I had to think about whether I wanted to come back,” said Craft, who starred at Craigmont and Olive Branch high schools during his prep days. “I talked it over with my coaches and with my family and decided I wanted to give it one more try.”
After a stellar performance in the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl win over Brigham Young (three tackles for loss, two sacks), the 6-7 Dillon suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2017. He struggled with the effects of the injury, and painkillers, while on that first comeback.
Memphis linebacker Jackson Dillon attempts to catch a tipped pass during a 2014 game between the Memphis Tigers and the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (File/Sportswire via AP Images)
Then on July 4 of last year, he was hunting wild hogs back home when he got too close to one of the critters, “and fell hard on my shoulder. Got dislocated.”
He got it popped back into place “tried to keep it a secret” but it popped out again in the opener.
“The doctors told me I also tore my labrum, and if I hurt the shoulder one more time without getting it fixed they’d have to do some really serious surgery, so I told ‘em let’s get it done.”
As of early this week Dillon was still awaiting word from the NCAA on his request for a sixth-year medical waiver “though I’ve been told it’s going to happen.” Either way, he figured it was worth the effort to come back.
“Don’t got a whole lot better to do besides go work in an oil field or on a ranch,” said Dillon, who like Craft is also working on a second degree. “I kinda like college and my free time, and I love football. I think I can make a damn good year out of it … and I think I can go get paid to play after that, regardless of everything.”
He said he’s actually “had to get used to playing without something hurting.”
Tigers’ coach Mike Norvell, who has just eight seniors on this year’s roster, said the two have been leaders even in the anonymity of their rehab routine.
“The rest of the team sees them in the training room every day, working to come back, and they feed off that determination,” Norvell said. “There have been some real trials they’ve had to go through, and I don’t know if I could be more proud of two individuals.
“Their commitment to this program and what we’re doing here shows their trust in the coaching staff and their teammates. All I want them to do is go out and play to the best of their abilities and enjoy themselves every snap they get.”
Craft finds himself in a crowded pool of playmakers, but in three-plus years he’s managed to score 17 touchdowns rushing and receiving.
“He can find the end zone,” said Norvell of Craft, part of the only father-son tandem to score touchdowns for the Tigers. His dad Ray played at U of M in the 1980s and is now on the campus police force.
Dillard, a power forward disguised as a linebacker, has 109 career tackles, nearly a quarter of them resulting in sacks or tackles for loss.
“Would like to get 12 ½ sacks this year,” he said, matter-of-factly. And he would like to take home a couple of school TFL records while he’s at it.
Linebacker Curtis Akins does not doubt what Dillon can do. “Best thing about our defense is Jackson Dillon. He can stop half the stuff all by himself,” Akins said. “With Austin Hall, Jackson and me out there – we feed off each other. It’s great.”
Craft said that after all those hours of rehab, “Jackson’s one of my best friends. We know we’re there for each other.”
And while it was a painful way to do it, the six years have given them both a unique perspective on the Tigers’ rise to prominence. Both were members of Justin Fuente’s second recruiting class.
“My freshman year we went 3-9 and the next year we went 10-3,” Craft said. “It’s an incredible feeling when something like that happens, and you know the decision you made was the right one.”
Dillon, per usual, put it in a more … unique … way.
“We’ve gone from being a 5A high school program when I got here,” Dillon said, “to a true D1 team now.”