De La Salle is a football powerhouse. A nationwide name in high school football, the small private school in Concord, Calif., has put out names such as Amani Toomer, D.J. Williams and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Yet despite the Pro Bowl appearances and NFL accolades of his predecessors, Lucas Dunne’s name is listed above theirs in the record books — and looked to be the next prodigy to follow in those footsteps.
But Dunne now finds himself as a freshman buried in the depth chart of the Cal rugby team. Going into his senior year, few believed the diminutive runner would amount to anything more than that.
During a preseason practice, head coach Bob Ladouceur spoke to his team about the upcoming season, telling his players that the team lacked a go-to running back. Dunne looked like the most likely candidate but had rushed for just 376 yards in mop-up duty during his junior campaign.
“That was pretty shocking to hear,” Dunne says. “I knew in my mind that I was supposed to be the guy, but I guess I wasn’t really showing it. Looking back, I’m glad he said it.”
If Ladouceur wasn’t a believer in the preseason, he certainly was after Dunne’s first carry of the year. On a pitch sweep, the 5-foot-8 back broke a pair of tackles and turned a play that was going nowhere into a 63-yard touchdown with a burst of deceptive speed and strength — a common theme for his senior season.
Dunne would finish the first half of the game with 144 yards and a pair of scores in what would be the platform for one of the most impressive individual seasons in Spartan football history. Leading his team to a 14-0 record and a CIF state title, Dunne amassed 2,034 yards on the ground and 40 touchdowns — a school record.
“He’s definitely one of the best runners we’ve ever had at this school,” Ladouceur says. “What Maurice Jones-Drew was for that team, Lucas was just as important for our team.”
Given the tradition of those before him, the next step for Dunne seemed obvious: taking over a major Division I backfield.
But his lack of eye-popping speed combined with his small stature only garnered him two Division I scholarship offers, from North and South Dakota — two schools he had little interest in attending.
So instead, Dunne turned to rugby, a sport he had just started playing as a junior.
“I went out to play rugby because I had a bunch of friends out there, and I just wanted to have a good time but still be working hard in the offseason,” Dunne says. “After my first season, I started really liking it, and it started getting more competitive for me.”
Playing wing — a natural position for someone with a combination of speed, power and a tendency for finding holes in defenses — Dunne attended Cal’s summer rugby camp before his senior year and caught the attention of the coaching staff. His running back skills translated onto the rugby pitch, turning him into a powerful runner with good ball skills and a knack for getting past defenders. His understanding of the game was still shaky, but Cal coach Jack Clark was willing to give him a shot given his background.
“Whenever you get a De La Salle football player, you’re going to get a guy with a pretty mature sports mindset,” Clark says. “They’re very detail-oriented, they have very high standards and they have to deal with those expectations and standards on a daily basis.”
Clark saw a kid with tremendous upside — a deceptively strong runner with an uncanny ability to run through you just as well as right by you — and envisioned a potential star on his squad.
So Dunne spent his senior year debating his future in collegiate sports.
And when top-tier football programs didn’t come calling, it seemed like the right choice to go with one of the top rugby teams.
“I knew that something would work out, and I would just have to make the best decision from those options at the time,” Dunne says. “At the time, I thought it was Cal, and it still is. I still think this is a great school and a great decision I made.”
Now a freshman at Cal and in just his third year playing organized rugby, Dunne is still working on playing catch-up, continuing to learn all of the subtleties of the game. However, a pulled hamstring during fall training camp kept him sidelined for much of the preseason.
“Just by watching all the other guys, you learn stuff every day,” Dunne says. “You can know it on a piece of paper, but when you actually get out there, it’s completely different.”
After spending most of fall rehabbing his injury, Dunne finally felt ready to get back onto the field. But on his first day back in practice, he pulled the same hamstring again, and it was back to square one. Dunne has yet to actually fully participate in a real regular season training session.
“It’s such a shame that we’ve all but lost his freshman year with this injury,” Clark says. “He’s a pretty compact guy, so he runs with a bit of power. At the same time, he’s got a really good step where he can set you up and really use all that power on the edge of your body.
“You can’t tackle him in a phone booth.”
With a young and inexperienced Cal rugby team, the stage is set for a quick and powerful runner with solid ball handling skills to see some early playing time and have an impact. Yet due to his injury, Dunne now finds himself in a similar situation he was in back in high school, waiting for his shot to make a name for himself on a nationally recognized team.
And while he plans on being patient with his injury, he doesn’t plan on waiting for the guys ahead of him to clear his path to the top.
“In high school, I was kind of waiting on the seniors to do their thing and kind of sitting back and watching,” he says. “I was too patient, and I could have probably had that mentality as a junior or even as a sophomore. Here, I’m just going to try to play the best I can.”
His coaches at Cal couldn’t agree more, awaiting the arrival of one of De La Salle’s most prolific running backs ever onto their rugby pitch.
“We started to see a pretty steep improvement curve,” Clark says. “He’s going to have the potential to be a very good player here, and I see a lot of promise in him. He’s a difficult guy to get to the ground.”
He’s also a difficult guy to keep from rising up.