After five years of proving himself, Dalyn Dawkins can finally say I told you so.
The Colorado State senior running back is enjoying the most successful season of his collegiate career on a team barreling towards a conference championship. But the path to Fort Collins was far from clear for Dawkins as a senior at Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky.
It was here that his aspirations and ability to play at the next level became readily apparent. Dawkins followed up a 1,750-yard, 25-touchdown junior season with 1,479 yards and 18 touchdowns to earn a four-star rating from Scout coming out of high school.
Schools began to take notice of the son of former NFL player Ralph Dawkins and nephew of sure-fire Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins. Legendary programs like Notre Dame and Ohio State came knocking before being deterred by something that has limited Dawkins’ chances his entire life: size.
At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds in high school, Dawkins was far from the prototypical running back. Potential colleges were blinded by his size and the perceived negative impacts it would have on his performance. Regardless of the numbers, they hesitated to put their trust in someone of his stature.
Because of this, Dawkins and his father sought out a school that would give him a chance to compete from the get-go and ignore any fears about his size.
At this point, CSU was in the midst of a 4-8 season under first-year head coach Jim McElwain. Though Dawkins had no connection to CSU, the same cannot be said about his relationship with the head coach.
McElwain served as the wide receivers and special teams coach at the University of Louisville from 2000-2002, and that’s when his relationship with the Dawkins family began. Ralph coached McElwain’s son, Jerret, as the families grew comfortable with one another. Dawkins’ talent became evident on the team, and McElwain realized the potential.
“We stayed in contact throughout the years and he was keeping up with Dalyn,” Ralph said. “He had always said, ‘If I land a head coaching job, I’m gonna want Dalyn.’”
Ten years later, McElwain manned the helm at CSU, and Dawkins topped his list of recruits. But the time wasn’t right for Dawkins, who received offers from other noteworthy programs.
Dawkins verbally committed to Cincinnati during his senior season to play under the tutelage of Butch Jones. But before the end of the season, Jones left Cincinnati for the head coaching position at Tennessee.
Back to square one, he reopened his recruiting. In this stage, Dawkins grew fond of Darrell Hazell and Purdue.
Formerly the head coach of Kent State, Hazell coached a running back of similar size and stature in Dri Archer. Five pounds lighter than Dawkins, Archer rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season with Hazell.
Hazell stressed his wishes to utilize Dawkins in a similar fashion that he used Archer at Kent State. What’s more, the coaching staff promised Dawkins an opportunity to start his freshman year.
“When I took my visit to Purdue, it was just in a big time environment,” Dalyn said. “They were telling me I could play as a freshman, I’d have that opportunity. It was a done deal.”
Dawkins arrived at Purdue in the fall of 2013 with full intentions of becoming the starter. Believed to be entering a competition for the starting job, Dawkins was met with a rude awakening.
Though he rose up the depth chart to the No. 2 running back, Purdue had already named its starting back for the season.
“They never had open competition to compete for the No. 1 spot,” Dalyn said. “I kept telling them, ‘If y’all give me 20 carries, I guarantee success.’ I was just 18 years old, a freshman, telling them I could do that…But me being smaller and being a freshman, they still had that doubt in their mind. So I never got that opportunity.”
Dawkins began to think about his future at Purdue. Before making a rash decision, though, he decided to stay for spring practice to see if the promised opportunity would come.
He found himself in a familiar position, looking for a team that would allow him to flaunt his talents.
Through his freshman year, Dawkins did not forget about CSU. He watched the Rams make their first bowl game since 2008. He followed along as Kapri Bibbs set school records in rushing yards and touchdowns.
More importantly, he realized that could have been him.
“I was watching what everyone else was doing,” Dalyn said. “Kapri Bibbs was the running back at CSU at the time…and here I was not getting any carries. So I knew right then that I made a mistake.”
Searching for a place to call home, a familiar face awaited him. Just as Dawkins never stopped watching CSU, McElwain continued to keep an eye on the back he knew for years. So when the time came for Dawkins to choose his landing spot, he didn’t hesitate.
Dawkins sat out his first year at CSU due to transfer rules, but that didn’t stop him from making an impact on the practice field. Working on the scout team, teammates noticed something different about their new teammate.
“I remember watching him do practice squad stuff and I was like, ‘Geez, this dude can run the ball,’” senior offensive lineman Trae Moxley said. “You could just tell that he didn’t belong down there.”
Dawkins watched Dee Hart rush for 1,275 yards 16 touchdowns that season as he awaited his return to eligibility. But at the end of the season, Dawkins was thrown a curveball he didn’t expect.
McElwain left Fort Collins for Gainsville, Fla. and an opportunity to coach in the SEC. In doing so, he left behind a young running back whom he had known since childhood.
Just when Dawkins thought he found the system and opportunity he was seeking, everything changed. Dawkins admitted he considered looking at other schools, but understood the implications another transfer would have on his eligibility.
In came Mike Bobo, who brought with him experience in a rushing-based offense. Though Dawkins’ relationship with McElwain vanished, something perhaps even more important presented itself: opportunity.
With a clean slate, he could prove he belonged in the backfield without any preconceived notions getting in the way. Embracing the opportunity is something that his father has taught him since his youth football days, and something he’s carried with him ever since.
“When I teach Dalyn, I say, ‘Hey, the one thing you can’t control is opportunity. So whatever opportunity you get, you’ve just got to maximize it,’” Ralph said.
“I’m big on opportunity,” Dalyn said. “If I get the opportunity, I always feel like I can succeed. I always make sure I take advantage of my opportunity when it comes. That’s why I left Purdue. I got a small opportunity, but the full opportunity wasn’t there like they said it was going to be.”
Given his beliefs, it only makes sense that Dawkins came into his sophomore season at CSU looking to climb his way to the top of the depth chart.
“He came in with a great mindset. ‘I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna play my butt off, and I’m gonna earn a spot,’” senior offensive lineman Zack Golditch said. “He’s played his butt off since his very first rep here.”
That work ethic cemented Dawkins as CSU’s leading rusher his sophomore season. Since then, his rise among college running backs has continued. Overlooked by many due to his size, Dawkins is proving that heart matters far more than height.
“I’ve said it a million times since day one, he is my favorite player because he loves to practice, he loves to compete, he is extremely tough mentally and physically,” Bobo said. “A lot of times you think he’s a scatback, he’s an open-field guy. But he’s more inside, ‘I’m hammering it in there.’ Dawkins runs hard, he’s always coming out of piles because he runs behind his pads.”
Now in his senior season, Dawkins ranks 19th in the nation in rushing yards and is on pace for well over 1,000 yards in the regular season. And the numbers don’t lie; when he is given the opportunity, he relishes it.
In games where he receives at least 20 carries, Dawkins has never rushed for less than 94 yards in his collegiate career. On seven separate occasions, he has eclipsed the century mark while receiving less than 20 carries.
With at least five games remaining as a Ram, Dawkins continues to climb the ranks of CSU running backs. He currently ranks ninth in program history in rushing yards and has plenty of time and ability to rise higher.
“We’ve seen so many people come through this program at running back,” Moxley said. “It’s weird seeing Dalyn change the mold…There’s just a mindset about him that’s like, ‘I’m gonna do this for my team, I’m gonna do this for my O-line.’ It’s awesome.”
Two weeks removed from his best performance as a Ram in which he parlayed 17 carries into 191 yards against Nevada, Dawkins is doing what he and his family were aware of all along.
“We’ve expected this. To be honest with you, we expect more. He does and I do,” Ralph said. “The game he had against Nevada, that’s the things that we expect.”
He’s an optimist, making the most of everything he’s been given regardless of what the naysayers think.
“It’s like, ‘I told you so,’” Dawkins said with a smile. “But I always play with that chip on my shoulder. It’s definitely a good feeling.”
Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.