From baby brother to Boilermaker All-American

How freshman phenom Dillon Thieneman, the youngest son in a family of Boilermakers, hit the ground running at an elite level.

"It's like he was created in a lab somewhere." - Head coach Ryan Walters on Dillon Thieneman's dominance as a true freshman.

Dillon Thieneman is walking to class. The students lugging backpacks as they trudge past Jimmy John’s, Von’s and Harry’s don’t seem to notice an All-American is in their midst.

Thieneman carries his backpack strapped over both shoulders. His destination is Rawls Hall for Management 254, the Legal Foundations of Business class. It’s a chilly Wednesday, but Thieneman isn’t dressed for it. He has no coat, just a white T-shirt and black pants.

“Have to take care of the books,” he says.

This time last year, Thieneman was trying to find his place amid the hustle and bustle of Purdue’s red-brick campus. He had arrived early from his Indianapolis-area home, wanting to get a jump on his football career.

It worked.

He’s a freshly minted All-American, coming off arguably the best true freshman season in school annals. Thieneman is already a BMOC (Big Man On Campus). So much, so fast. How did he arrive at this moment?

A young Dillon Thieneman (left) standing with his parents, Ken and Shannon, sister, Kiera, and older brothers, Jake (No. 41) and Brennan (No. 38). (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

The Brothers Knew

If anyone was listening, former Boilermaker Jake Thieneman was telling us about his youngest brother.

“We all knew it a long time ago,” fessed Jake.

The oldest of the three Thieneman brothers, Jake became convinced of Dillon’s prowess when his kid brother played grade school flag football for Saint Maria Goretti in Westfield, Indiana. Here’s where Brennan Thieneman, the middle brother, picks up the story …

“Dillon took the ball and juked eight players, every guy on the field,” he said. “Jake and I were refereeing, and we high-fived each other. It was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it. They used to limit how much Dillon could carry the ball because he’d have three carries, three touchdowns.”

It just wasn’t fair.

“It was absurd,” said Jake. “He was always the most athletic kid at whatever he did.”

Jake and Brennan—who each played safety at Purdue, too—have had a front-row seat for the development of the “little Dillon.” They are eight (Jake, 1996) and seven (Brennan, 1997) years older than Dillon (2004), often de facto parents.

Now, the rest of the nation knows: Dillon Thieneman is good. Very good. All-American good. The final stat sheet from 2023 says he led the nation’s freshmen in tackles, interceptions and forced fumbles.

The All-American honors poured in …

  • The Football Writers Association of America
  • The Athletic
  • 247
  • FWAA Defensive Freshman Player of the Year
  • Big Ten Freshman of the Year

Dillon shrugs his shoulders. He’s unphased. It’s as if he expected it. You could say that, to a degree, he did. He’s been on this path since middle school when Jake typed out a workout program at Dillon’s request. He just wanted to keep up.

“Brennan and I were going to give him the answers to the test,” said Jake. “We were going to take everything we learned and just pass it on to Dillon to get him started earlier.”

Agility work, position-specific drills, speed training … Jake and Brennan devised a comprehensive plan.

“He was doing ladders,” said Jake. “He was doing different footwork stuff. He was doing bodyweight stuff. And he was doing his defensive back drills.”

Dillon also did daily push-ups and pull-ups. This single-minded focus left Brennan and Jake shaking their heads.

“He was always very diligent even though he was younger and kids his age weren’t doing that stuff,” said Brennan.

Soon, Thieneman found himself starting as a freshman at Westfield (Ind.) High. Schools wanted him. Northwestern sniffed around. And so did Duke and Minnesota, which really wanted him. But Thieneman was in the bag for Purdue all along, really. He committed on June 14, 2022, before his season season.

“Most felt I was going to go to Purdue, so they backed off,” said Dillon.

Thieneman was a Boilermaker, just like his brothers and father, Ken. His mom, Shannon? She went to Indiana.

“But she’s converted,” said Dillon, smiling.

Banner Day

Dillon Thieneman is the kid next door who cuts your lawn, shovels your driveway and bags your groceries. He is also really good at football. How good? He received the ultimate Purdue honor on the first day of spring ball when an All-American banner bearing his image was unfurled in the Mollenkopf Athletic Center.

“I knew he was going to come in and ball out,” said Brennan. “I had no doubt about that. But at an All-American level? I don’t know if I had expectations there. I’d say that that did exceed my already high expectations.”

There’s Dillon, up on the wall with Boilermaker luminaries like Rod Woodson, Drew Brees, Mark Herrmann and Ryan Kerrigan.

“(My teammates) are the real reason that I was able to play to get up there,” said Thieneman.

There’s that maturity. He’s 19 going on 35. And his work ethic? It’s described like this: He combines a walk-on mentality with an All-American’s ability.

“It’s like he was created in a lab somewhere,” Ryan Walters said. “You try to find things in his game, his personality, things in his life where you’re like, ‘Oh, he needs to pick it up in this area.’ We get the (academic) grade report; his lowest grade right now is 99.

“Have I coached anybody like him before? No, I haven’t. Not at (19). Not as talented as he is. Not with the work ethic and the hunger that he has. If I were a betting man, I would say he’s got a long time to play football.”

Dillon Thieneman celebrates his first career interception in the 2023 season-opener vs. Fresno State. (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

Purdue safeties coach Grant O’Brien shakes his head at his gift from the football gods. He knows he’s lucky.

“He’s got a mental skill set to do something special because of how he approaches a simple task,” said O’Brien. “Last spring, I was like, ‘this guy might have something special,’ and then it obviously translated to production on the field.”

How did this happen? How did Dillon Thieneman—who turns 20 in August—get here so quickly? And what’s next for a player who, as just a sophomore, already is the face of Purdue Football?

Learning the Hard Way

Throw me the ball! Throw me the ball!

Dillon Thieneman could be a pest as a kid. You know how little brothers can be.

“He always has been extremely competitive,” said Dillon’s mom, Shannon Thieneman. “He wanted Ken and Jake and Brennan to throw him the football or basketball or whatever it is … just keep throwing it to him.”

So, they would throw it as hard as they could at him.

“And he didn’t always catch it as a little kid and then it would hit him in the face,” said Shannon. “So, he learned the hard way.”

Brennan often paid for it: “He’d cry to mom, and I’d get in trouble.”

Through that veil of tears, Dillon got tough. And better.

“He’d want Brennan and I to throw him into the couch harder and harder,” said Jake. “It usually ended up with Dillon crying. But he asked for it.

“But that was just Dillon.”

Brennan was especially hard on Dillon during a game they invented called “The Return Game.” It was pretty simple: Brennan would boot the ball to Dillon, who would earn points based on how far he ran back the ball. It often wasn’t too far, with Brennan having no mercy on his young brother.

“They played a lot of games together,” said Shannon. “But he didn’t let (Brennan) get away with anything because he was the younger brother. He was tough on him.”

Jake and Brennan quickly saw what the rest of the Purdue fans saw last fall: Dillon Thieneman is more athletic than you think.

Ask anyone on the Purdue team and they’ll tell you. Thieneman is a legit blazer, one of the two or three fastest players. The only one on defense on par is defensive back Kyndrich Breedlove. On offense, wide receiver CJ Smith is all gas. But Thieneman is right there, fast … and fearless.

“At four years old, we teach them how to do a front flip,” said Jake. “So, he nails the front flip off the diving board the first time. Brennan and I don’t say a single word as he gets out of the pool, goes back on the diving board and immediately does a backflip. We didn’t tell him anything. He’d just been watching us that entire time.”

Dillon was always watching, observing, listening and tagging along. He wanted to be like Jake and Brennan. He watched each star at Guerin Catholic High in Noblesville. Dillon saw their work ethic, their drive and motivation, which propelled both Jake and Brennan to Purdue as walk-ons who developed into key contributors and scholarship players for the program in the Jeff Brohm era.

“He started seeing Brennan and I play, which pushed him to go even harder,” said Jake. “It’s like he’s been training hard on his own since seventh grade.

That work ethic and supreme athletic ability launched Thieneman to a stellar career at Westfield High, and on to Purdue.

“I kind of knew from the spring what he was,” said fellow safety Sanoussi Kane, a senior on last year’s team. “It’s awesome to see all this hard work pay off. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, if not the hardest.”

Knowing What He Wants

Want to see Dillon Thieneman smile? Put a plate of pasta in front of him.

“Homemade sauce, chicken, that’s what he always asked me to make,” said Shannon. “That’s his favorite, and he likes to help me. He’s not a junk food eater. It’s all part of the training.”

Shannon would prepare a pasta bar for her children, including sister, Kiera.

“I loved it,” said Dillon.

Thieneman has always known what he wanted. He played basketball, and he was a pretty good baseball player. But football was his fixation and sole focus in high school. He knew. He knew he could be special. Mom and Dad knew, too. They had a transformative talk with Dillon before he entered high school.

“We told him he had to put in the work now, not wait until you get to college or get into high school,” said Shannon. “You have to be prepared by the time you get into high school. That’s why he was able to start at a 6A program as a freshman; he was willing to put in the work.

“He’s doing what we always knew he could do. He did it as a freshman. And I don’t think we were expecting him to be an All-American as a freshman. We knew he would be at some point, but that was a wonderful surprise.”

Thieneman now finds himself as a respected leader on the 2024 Boilermakers, trying to set the tone for a program in Year Two under Walters. The goal: flip the script on last year’s 4-8 season.

Dillon Thieneman led the nation’s freshmen with two forced fumbles, forcing a pair at Nebraska last season. (Photos courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

He’s grown into a 6-0, 205-pound all-muscle man. Thieneman cinches a headband around his noggin after pulling on his No. 31 jersey. He surveys the field from a perch high above the defense, setting up roughly 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, almost seemingly out of place.

Is it too deep? Nope.

From that distance, Thieneman is asked to scan the field. In football parlance, he can play “downhill,” breaking on plays quickly, reading schemes, moving at top speed and attacking.

He announced his presence in the season opener vs. Fresno State when he picked off one of his freshman-record six passes on the year. It was a beaut. But he delivered a hit in punt coverage—leveling a Bulldog—that resonated and perhaps personified what Thieneman is all about, doing blue-collar work usually reserved for walk-ons.

“He loves being on punt coverage,” said Purdue special teams coach Chris Petrilli. “He never wanted to come off.”

And he probably won’t. Thieneman may even end up running back punts this season.

“I knew he was going to be a special player just based on how he carries himself, his character, his work ethic, what he pours into his craft every single day on and off the field,” said O’Brien. “You never envision exactly where a young man will be at his freshman year or even his career as far as being an All-American. But I think it’s just a testimony to what he’s about from a character standpoint.

“People have mentored him; his work has just spoken for itself. That established him as a starter after the spring when he first came in. It continued through the summer and (he) had a phenomenal year as a true freshman.”

Academic Expectations

Dillon Thieneman credits his parents, Shannon and Ken, for pushing him and his siblings to excel in the classroom. (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

Jake Thieneman majored in engineering. So did Brennan and father, Ken, who owns Thieneman Construction. Smarts run in the Thieneman family. It’s not all about PBUs, INTs and TFLs.

“Our parents put a huge emphasis on academics,” said Jake. “It came before anything else –  sports, training, playing outside. The biggest thing my parents did was instill in us very high standards for ourselves. A’s were expected.”

Achievement was celebrated in the Thieneman house. Kitchen cabinets were adorned with tests that earned an “A.” Report cards that glistened with good marks were also on display as the kids ate their cereal and Pop-Tarts in the mornings.

“It became a competition with Brennan and me to hang as much as possible,” said Jake. “We completely covered the kitchen.”

Of course, Dillon had to keep up. And he did. His goal at Purdue is to graduate as soon as he can. He enrolled a semester early and was in the School of Engineering for the first two semesters before switching to management.

“I did feel some pressure, but in the end everyone wanted me to do and study something that I wanted to do, so I got tons of support when I was considering and making the change,” said Dillon.

Thieneman’s schedule was loaded with five classes during the 2024 spring semester: MGMT 254, MGMT 200, ECON 251, ECON 252, EAPS 106 … He plans to pile more on, taking a course in May and two more this summer in advance of his sophomore season.

“Academics were always a heavy emphasis for our family,” said Brennan. “My dad, being involved in managing construction, told us from a young age, ‘You can spend the rest of your life working with your back, or you can study hard, go to college, and work with your brain.’ So, good grades were not only significant to my parents but were also incentivized.”

Peer Review

Cam Allen smiles as he considers the question: What makes Dillon Thieneman good?

“My man Dillon, coming in, in the weight room, on the field, however you look at it, he’s already on top of the boards in everything,” said Allen. “Looking through my eyes, there’s a lot of things he does that I (haven’t) seen a true freshman do in a long time.”

Dillon Thieneman (middle) at Iowa, carrying the ball from his third interception of the 2023 season along with teammates Cam Allen (left) and Yanni Karlaftis (right). (Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletics)

Players four and five years older than Thieneman took cues from the new kid, the youngster inspiring oldsters.

“I would say just the level of his preparation,” fessed defensive lineman Isaiah Nichols when asked what makes the precocious Thieneman special.

“He’s a lot more mature than his age and his experience. We’re in the hotel, and I come off the elevator before the game, and I see him going over his tip sheets and everything.”

Remember: Jake Thieneman was trying to tell us how good his kid brother was. What’s next?

The secondary must replace Allen and Kane. The search is on for two new tackles. And who will rush the passer with Nic Scourton having transferred and Kydran Jenkins now playing linebacker?

“I’m still working toward (being a leader),” said Thieneman. “It’s a new thing. But I think people think of me as a leader, and I’ve got to step up into that leadership role.”

Thieneman will grow into a leadership role vocally. He’s already leading by example. He’s the first guy at practice, and he always lingers afterward doing extra work, fine-tuning his breaks, back-pedaling… always looking for an edge amid his nuanced work. It has commanded the respect of peers.

“It’s really still the beginning for him,” said O’Brien. “It’s about where he can take his game next.”

By Tom Dienhart, who has covered Purdue football for since 2019. He earned a B.A. Communications degree from Purdue in 1987.