Brandon Dillon Completes the Unlikely Jump From NAIA to NFL

Photo Credit: Rich Barnes (USA Today Sports)

On the eve of roster cuts, rookie tight end Brandon Dillon traveled to downtown Minneapolis to meet with B.J. Coad, his former offensive line coach at alma mater Marian. Coad had recently taken the same job with Butler University, and the Bulldogs were facing North Dakota State at Target Field Saturday afternoon.

For Dillon, the gathering was a much-needed distraction from what the weekend was sure to hold. Roster cuts produce nerve-wracking days and sleepless nights for the majority of players on teams’ 90-man rosters. When you’re an undrafted player from an NAIA school at a deep position group, there’s even more reason to stress.

“It was definitely a surreal experience,” Dillon told Zone Coverage. “It was definitely a pretty anxiety-filled day. I was just kind of waiting, and I didn’t really know the moment I made it. I went to practice, and I kept waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder. Nobody did.”

The rookie beat out Cole Hikutini for the team’s fourth tight end job as fellow backup David Morgan II recovers from knee surgery on the physically unable to perform list. Even after the first roster-cut deadline, Dillon said he kept waiting for the dreaded call that the Vikings were bringing in another player off waivers and needed his roster spot, so he tempered his family’s expectations. The Vikings did, in fact, add another pass-catcher — wide receiver Josh Doctson — but released center Brett Jones in the corresponding move.

For now, Dillon is safe.

“Now that that’s through,” he said, “everything’s really exciting.”

When Dillon chose to attend NAIA football power Marian in 2015, he had plans of pursuing a job in sports, possibly as an athletic director. He majored in business management with a concentration in sports management.

Marian is a private Catholic university with under 2,500 undergrads located in downtown Indianapolis. Dillon and his teammates spent a lot of time around the Indianapolis Colts organization doing charity work in the Indianapolis community. They also excelled at football, going 40-7 in Dillon’s four seasons with the team and winning a championship over Southern Oregon in 2015. Dillon, a freshman at the time, had one carry for eight yards and one reception for minus-two yards in the game.

He was a 205-pound wide receiver when he first arrived at Marian, but Dillon worked with Coad, the offensive line coach, on transitioning to tight end as he got stronger. With that switch came more blocking responsibilities.

“They kind of said, ‘Put your hand in the dirt, we’re going to try it,'” remembered Dillon. “I think playing nasty is a big thing, always trying to finish the play, always run after the ball, just playing hard.”

Dillon increased his receiving yardage each season and capped his career with a 35-catch, 603-yard senior campaign where he averaged over 17 yards per reception. He had turned into a 250-pound pass catcher with above-average blocking ability. That earned him his first-ever trip to visit the West Coast and play in one of college football’s all-star games, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, where he competed alongside future Vikings teammates Bisi Johnson, Jake Browning and Austin Cutting. Three months later, the Vikings sent scouts to Dillon’s pro day in Indianapolis and put him in contact with tight ends coach Brian Pariani, who liked what he saw from Dillon.

“Matter of fact, I’ve got to pay Coach $1,000 for getting him,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “now that I think about it.”

Dillon made eight catches for 95 yards in the Vikings preseason, not including a touchdown reception he had wiped off the board by a penalty at Buffalo. He put together a steady training camp that included a highlight-reel one-handed catch which brought about the first reference to his new nickname, “The Marian Flash.”

“He’s a guy that I think has a good future,” said Zimmer. “He’s got the size. He can run, catches the ball well, improved coming out of an NAIA school. He improved quite a bit over the time of training camp.”

The last thing Dillon can do now is relax, however. Knowing that Morgan may return midseason and create a positional logjam means the NAIA product will have to continue proving his worth. That work might have to be done on the practice field since the Vikings may not keep four tight ends active on their 46-man gameday roster.

Once again, Dillon can go to Coach Coad for some words of wisdom.

“Control what you can control,” Coad told him last Friday night. “That’s always been our motto. There’s a million opportunities, so you can’t freak yourself out.”

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