Duke football grad transfer returns for one more season: ‘There’s unfinished business’

Having helped vanquish UCF 30-13 in the Military Bowl last Dec. 28, Cam Dillon left Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium prepared for his post-football existence.

“I was done,” Dillon, a starting linebacker for Duke that day, said Tuesday. “After the season, I was content with how everything happened. I thought I was ready for the next phase of my life.”

Owning an Ivy League education before he transferred to play in the ACC while attending Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Dillon’s job opportunities were plentiful. He’d already gone through senior day festivities during Duke’s final home game on Nov. 26.

Yet, in the days following that bowl game while on a holiday break, life conspired with football to pull him back into the game.

“Toward the end of the season my dad had gotten sick and missed the last few games,” Dillon said. “So when I was home with him and getting to see him for the first time and realizing that, you know, not only did I not want to be done, but seeing that my family still wanted me to play and wanted to be my biggest supporters. I felt like I had more to come out and give and I love these guys to death and couldn’t ask for anything more than another season with them.”

Last Friday, when Duke opened spring practice, Dillon was back wearing his No. 35 jersey, manning a starting position on defense. He has one final season of eligibility, due to the NCAA’s pandemic-era rule that doesn’t count the 2020 season against eligibility caps.

So after a solid career at Columbia, where he was a second-team, all-Ivy player in 2021 while earning a mechanical engineering degree, Dillon is comfortable in his second college home at Duke, helping coach Mike Elko continue to elevate the Blue Devils.

“That locker room is tighter than anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” Dillon said. “The coaching staff is amazing. They push us every day. They want nothing but the best for us.”

‘I had to support everybody’

When Dillon first came to Duke last summer, he didn’t look like a player destined for a starting job. But his play improved as the season progressed, and he grew more comfortable with Duke’s system under its first-time head coach.

“If you remember,” Elko said, “a lot of those kids showed up in fall camp and they’ve never even practiced with us. So you had a kid that was not only trying to learn a new system and new scheme and play in a new league and at a new level, but like every play, every scheme that we did, he was swimming. As smart as he is and as high a caliber of player as he was, he was certainly swimming.”

Dillon wanted more playing time, while admitting it would be tough to earn it.

“I knew that was my role, though,” Dillon said. “And I just had to support everybody else on the team, which all the guys were that way. Everybody is extremely supportive, no matter what’s going on.”

The coaches saw Dillon could contribute, and more opportunities came his way.

On Nov. 4, Dillon recorded nine tackles in Duke’s 38-31 win at Boston College that earned the team bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018. On Nov. 26, he was credited with 10 tackles (two solo, eight assisted) in Duke’s 34-31 win over Wake Forest.

‘There’s unfinished business’

In the Military Bowl, Dillon had six solo tackles with three assisted stops for nine total tackles.

“Luckily enough for myself,” Dillon said, “I was able to start getting a little more PT (playing time) every game. Until eventually, you know, I did end up starting the last few games which was awesome. It was everything I could have ever dreamed of. I’m just forever grateful for all those opportunities. But there’s unfinished business.”

That’s part of the reason why he’s still playing college football, grinding through spring practices as the Blue Devils look to prove last season’s 9-4 record wasn’t an aberration following three consecutive losing seasons. They are determined to establish sustained success.

Dillon is part of an experienced group of defensive players returning for Elko’s team.

“Now he’s got a much more solid base having gone through it all,” Elko said. “He’s very familiar with what we do and how we do it. Now he’s able to take it to the next level.”

For a while in January, Dillon didn’t appear on Duke’s 2023 roster. His change of heart led to the staff gladly finding room for him, though.

“Luckily enough,” Dillon said, “they welcomed me back with open arms and here we are.”