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How Mississippi State freshman got better during pandemic

STARKVILLE (AP) — Dillon Johnson racked the barbell. Sweat beaded up on his nose and dripped down his forehead. Veins pulsated in his neck and arms.
The incoming Mississippi State freshman running back put up a personal record on the bench press this month at Greenville Christian High School.
Johnson shouldn’t be familiar with Greenville Christian, but he is. He’s been going there to work out for years despite attending the city’s rival high school, St. Joseph Catholic School. He graduated from St. Joseph this spring.
Johnson’s final months as a high schooler didn’t go as planned. He didn’t get to go to a prom or a standard high school graduation. But he did spend much more time in the weight room than he would have had classes never shifted online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson benched 10 reps of 185, 205 and 225 pounds when the pandemic started in March. On a recent Monday, he did 12 reps of 275 pounds.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting up there. I’m getting that SEC strength,'” Johnson said. “I don’t think people realize how much weight that is for that many reps. I didn’t see myself putting that up two months ago.”
That’s where Greenville Christian coach Justin Leavy comes in.
Johnson approached Leavy three years ago before attending Nike’s “The Opening” football camp. He spent more time training for basketball early in his high school career until football offers flooded his inbox.
When it became clear his future was on the gridiron, he turned to Leavy for help.
Leavy graduated from Greenville Christian in 2011 and played college ball at Mississippi Delta Community College in 2012 and Delta State from 2013-16. He’s been coaching at his high school alma mater ever since.
Leavy doesn’t mind training someone from a rival school. Any time a player comes to him seeking specified training, he’s more than willing to help. He trained current Ole Miss quarterback Brice Johnson, Mississippi State graduate Gerri Green and several others.
He said Johnson is as driven as any of them.
“He gets it in his mind if he can do something, he’s going to do it,” Leavy said. “He also has this killer instinct, a mentality that makes him good at anything he does. He’s definitely a different type of athlete.”
Johnson’s training with Leavy initially consisted of a workout here and there when he had time to visit Greenville Christian. When the pandemic hit, he had nothing to do other than hit the weights when he wasn’t busy with online classes.
He woke up at 6:45 a.m. every day. When lockdown orders got stricter in Mississippi, Leavy moved some weights to his garage so they didn’t have to work out in a closed school. Each session included a run along the Mississippi River Levee before or after weight training.
“I really feel like the coronavirus was a blessing in disguise for me,” Johnson said. “It helped me focus a lot of my time on football and helped my body develop. I’ve been able to focus on things that I need to work on, areas of my game that I need to work on. Being able to be at a certain weight, being able to lift certain weights. It’s been great for me.”
Johnson weighed 191 pounds at the onset of the pandemic. Now he fluctuates between 213 and 215. Leavy wanted him to put on 15 pounds by the time he had to leave for Mississippi State this summer. Johnson reached that mark within three weeks.
“What stands out about him is that he wants to get better,” Leavy said. “He thinks about it all the time. I think that’s why he continues to see success.”
The NCAA has announced that student-athletes will be able to return to their respective campuses starting June 1 for voluntary workouts. Johnson said he cannot wait to be in Starkville learning from last year’s SEC rushing king Kylin Hill.
Mississippi State running backs coach Eric Mele texted Johnson when the NCAA’s announcement came out and warned him to be ready for the intensity of the college workouts Hill has been accustomed to for three years and counting.
Thanks to Leavy and his own dedication, Johnson isn’t worried.
“When I go off to college, it will be easy for me,” he said. “I train to be top notch.”