HELENA – Eric Dawson was a highly decorated student-athlete during his time at Great Falls CMR High School. Dawson placed fourth in the 2014 Class AA state track and field meet in both the shot put and javelin. He was also an all-conference and all-state football player for the Rustlers, playing tight end and linebacker.
Most athletes are limited to one side of the football at the collegiate level, but Dawson is in a select group to have seen the field on offense and defense at Carroll College.
“I knew it was a great program,” Dawson said of the Fighting Saints. “Coach Van Diest has been around a long time. He recruited me to play linebacker. When I came in as a linebacker I didn’t expect to play or anything but when he told me I was going to get to play, that was awesome. I got to play my freshman year with a bunch of great guys – Sean Blomquist, Shayne Durbin and Dawson Osborn.
Blomquist is something of a legend around Carroll College. A two-time first team all-American, the Helena High product was a perfect mentor for the younger Dawson.
“Sean was my ‘Big Saint’ and I learned a ton from Sean,” said Dawson. “He helped me during meetings and I went over to his house to watch film and go over a lot of things. I think he was one of the biggest reasons why I had a little success my freshman year because he helped me from the start. He took me under his wing.”
Dawson appeared to be on the fast track to becoming one of the next great Carroll linebackers after recording 21 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception during his freshman season. But during his sophomore campaign a different conversation arose.
“Coach Van Diest did. He asked me if I wanted to stay at linebacker or if I wanted to play tight end,” said Dawson. “That was kind of cool to have Van Diest ask you if you wanted to switch positions. I told him, ‘If he needed me to play linebacker I would play linebacker but I would love to play tight end.’”
“He is very similar to Bubba (Bartlett),” said offensive coordinator Nick Howlett. “He’s a great athlete, has tremendous hands and Eric can do a lot of things. He can play on the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage, we can split him out wide – he really has to be multiple for what we want to do.”
That will include returning to form on the receiving side that made him all-state at CMR. It also means Dawson will need to use his linebacker strength to pave the way for Carroll running backs.
“That’s one of the things he probably needs the most work at,” Howlett said. “He’s a natural receiver, he has great hands like we talked about and just the technique part of being a physical blocker is what he needs to master. Eric does such a great job and he is so strong, it’s just part of his game that he lost with the year he spent at linebacker. We’re trying hard to develop that part of it.”
“I’m going to have to block when called upon and run routes and catch the ball when I need to,” Dawson said. “I feel a little better. I’m a little more comfortable going into it with a year under my belt. I can go in knowing the offense and different things – checks and such. I’ll be a little more comfortable when you get up to play instead of worrying about whether I’m going to do it right or not.”
The tight end position has been good to Saints past. Casey Fitzsimmons enjoyed an NFL career and Bartlett earned all-American status and a brief tryout with the Houston Texans.
Coaches and teammates agree Dawson has the potential to do great things in his final two seasons, no matter where the Saints need him to play.
“I just want to do everything I’m asked to do,” he said. “Whatever’s best for the team. Hopefully I can become as good as those guys were. I look up to those guys and watch film on them all the time. They’re great players and it’s awesome to have them come before me so I can learn new things from them.”
Dawson was one of only two athletes in the receiving corps to play in all 10 games in 2015, with many of the Saints’ receivers suffering injury throughout the season. In his first full year as a college tight end, Dawson caught 28 passes for 368 yards and one touchdown. He and Howlett were quick to point out their excitement for 2016 with an intact crew hauling in passes.
“It was hard losing a bunch of great athletes but it’s awesome getting them back this year,” said Dawson. “It was a lot to pick up in only one year, just to learn the whole offense in and out, running those routes and blocking when you’re called upon. But it was awesome. I loved every bit of it.”
“I’ve been knocking on wood ever since last fall so hopefully we can keep everybody healthy, keep these guys rolling and give JT (Linder) some options out there,” added Howlett.