Purdue’s Dillon Thieneman, college football’s best freshman in 2023, is ready

“Speech! Speech!”

That’s what Purdue second-year safety Dillon Thieneman heard as the Boilermakers opened spring practice back in March. He wasn’t prepared. He definitely hadn’t expected his family to show up moments before or for Purdue to drop a banner honoring his 2023 All-American season (AP third-team). But he did his best when promoted, quickly thanking his teammates: “It’s because of you guys.”

The rest of practice, at least between reps, Thieneman would look up and see … well … a picture of himself.

“It’s weird,” Thieneman told 247Sports. “I kind of just kept looking at it. I’d be off a rep, look over and it’d surprise me again.”

That’s about the only thing that surprised Thieneman during a true freshman campaign that saw him crash the national conversation and even win 247Sports True Freshman of the Year.

Thieneman did a little bit of everything for the Boilermakers. He led the team with 106 tackles, 74 of the solo variety — breaking Rod Woodson’s school record for a freshman and tying for fifth nationally in that number. His six interceptions tied for third in FBS. His 89.5 PFF College grade led all Power Five true freshman defenders.

He is already the top name to know for a team that will waste no time landing in the national spotlight this fall, as Purdue hosts Notre Dame on Sept. 14 (3:30 p.m. ET on CBS). Thieneman’s ascent to stardom happened instantly, too.

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene had had an incredible 2023 debut in a win against Purdue on Sept. 2, 2023. He threw for 366 yards and 4 TDs on 31 of 44 passing. There was just one minor flaw: A fourth-quarter interception that (briefly) led to Purdue taking the lead.

Keene dropped back, waited a beat to allow his receiver to finish his double move and then let the ball fly toward a seemingly open target some 35 yards down the field.

On the TV copy of the game, it looks like a sure catch, a likely backbreaker for Purdue down four with 5:17 remaining. But suddenly, like a flash across the screen, Thieneman pops into the picture to make a leaping interception at full speed — banging into the receiver in the process — before getting a foot down in bounds.

“I knew once the ball went up and he was into his break he was going to get it,” Purdue safeties coach Grant O’Brien told 247Sports.

That moment, after all, encompasses every element of what makes Thieneman so special.

Thieneman began the snap some 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage as Purdue’s lone safety. Keene’s eyes immediately turned left  upon the snap, so Thieneman started to scooch that way. As soon as Keene began to wind up, Thieneman noticed the receiver begin his break up field. That’s when Thieneman took off.

Making a read that quickly and the instincts to trust it aren’t common for first-year free safeties. That’s a role that requires repetition and learned experience for greatness.

But O’Brien observed those traits in Thieneman (pronounced THEE-na-man) all offseason leading into last year. He described Thieneman as “overprepared.” There was never a need to teach Thieneman how to study or worry about how the true freshman would watch film on his own. Thieneman prepared to a degree he almost didn’t have to think down to down. He could diagnose and react.

“He understands the game of football,” O’Brien said. “He had 100% confidence he was doing the right thing. He was playing football freely. There was no hesitation.”

Seeing what will happen is one thing. Being able to make the play is another.

Thieneman broke before the ball left Keene’s hands. Yet he still had to cover some 25-30 yards in just about 3 seconds to get to the ball in time. That’s where his athletic ability comes into play.

While not a highly decorated recruit coming out of Westfield High School in Indiana — 247Sports assigned Thieneman an 87 rating — Thieneman is an impressive athlete. The 6-foot, 205-pound safety posted a 4.36 laser timed 40 as a high school junior along with a 37.4-inch vertical; not to mention a 465-pound squat and 300-pound power clean.

Those are dynamic numbers that translated to college, where he hit 22.3 miles per hour on the GPS last offseason, according to Bruce Feldman of The Athletic.

That is m-o-v-i-n-g.

That’s when the ball skills come into play. Making interceptions isn’t just about a player’s hands. It’s about tracking the ball in the air and attacking it ahead of the other player. Doing so at 20-plus miles per hour adds another degree of difficulty. But it’s something Thieneman consistently showed the ability to do.

“If you pull up practice tape leading up to that point, he made those players every single day like they were routine,” O’Brien said. “Physically, he’s what you’re looking for as far as a DB profile.”

Thieneman’s banner only adds to his family legacy with the Boilermakers. Thieneman grew up attending games and tailgates in West Layfette watching his brothers Jake and Brennan both go from walk-ons to fan-favorite starters from 2014 to 2020.

His time around Purdue growing up is a big reason why he selected the Boilermakers over Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana. As for his brothers, learning from their journey almost helped jumpstart his career early, at least in a way.

They taught him how to work.

“The hard work, the determination, the discipline,” Thieneman said. “They showed up as walk-ons. They were the bottom of the bottom. When Jake showed up it was a different staff. He originally wasn’t allowed to eat with the team. You just learn to put your head down and work your way up.”

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