College Football

Purdue’s Dillon Thieneman, college football’s best freshman in 2023, is ready for his national close-up

Purdue's Dillon Thieneman, college football's best freshman in 2023, is ready for his national close-up

“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.


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