After a torn ACL, Dixie State running back breaks NCAA record in memorable senior year

Drew Kannely-Robles races towards the end zone for his record-setting fourth touchdown of the game.
Bill Choy
Siskiyou Daily News

Drew Kannely-Robles fondly recalled the first time he donned a football helmet in a game as a 7-year-old playing for the Yreka Chargers Junior Peewee football team and how he felt at home.

His passion for the sport stayed with him over the years as he became a standout running back at both Yreka High School and College of the Siskiyous in Weed. His gridiron journey continued at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, where he has been for the past three years. The school, which will change its name to Utah Tech next year, moved up this season from NCAA Division 2 to NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). 

"It's been a long ride," he said, expressing gratitude to all who helped shape him on his journey. "I know we're lucky to be able to still be able to play the game we have enjoyed being a part of since we were kids." 

Last October, a torn ACL threatened to put an end to Kannely-Robles' college football career, as he sat out the spring football season. 

Drew Kannely-Robles

He was deemed healthy enough to resume practice about a month before the season began in August. Despite a slow start, Kannely-Robles, who is a senior, had a strong second half of the season. 

This included rumbling for 183 yards and a touchdown at the Oct. 23 homecoming game against Stephen F. Austin.

The following week on the road against Delaware, which was ranked No. 25 in the country, he had 112 receiving yards, as the Bison narrowly lost 17-10. 

"You can tell there's a lot of better talent you're facing," in the FCS level, Kannely-Robles said. "A lot of those guys will be on NFL rosters next year."  

In the lone win for Dixie State, at home versus Fort Lewis, Kannely-Robles set an NCAA-era record for his school, with four rushing touchdowns in the game. He finished the Nov. 13 contest with 158 yards. Dixie won 62-21.

For the season, which concluded on Nov. 20, Kannely-Robles ran for 729 yards, rushed for seven touchdowns and had 354 receiving yards. 

"He's a little soft-spoken and quiet, but he doesn't play that way," Dixie State head coach Paul Peterson told The St. George Spectrum & Daily News following the Fort Lewis game. "He plays physical and strong. He's been a phenomenal player for us this year, no doubt about it." 

Fort Lewis game

At the end of the first half against Fort Lewis, Kannely-Robles had three touchdowns, and the game was well in hand. Dixie led 49-7 at the half.

Kannely-Robles, who is a team-first player, wanted his fellow running backs to start the second half. Sitting on the bench, the coaching staff called Drew in. Confused and unsure why, he got back in and made his fourth touchdown.

Dixie State senior Drew Kannely-Robles takes a handoff during the Trailblazers' 37-20 loss to Stephen F. Austin on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

"I was just ready for my teammates to be able to come in," Kannely-Robles said. "I had no idea about the record." 

When he returned to the sideline, his running back coach, Peter Tuitupou, explained how he wanted the Yreka native to earn the school touchdown record in a game.

His coaches gave him the chance to keep playing after that fourth touchdown. But he declined. 

"After he got that record, we were, "Hey, man, we're trying to get you to 250 and get another touchdown' and he was like, 'No, coach, let's let these other boys eat'," Peterson told The Spectrum. "He's a fantastic teammate, easy to make him captain for our team. He works tremendously hard." 

Challenging season

It was a tough season for Dixie State to transition to the FCS, as they went 1-10 overall. They played against a number of top 25 teams, including Sam Houston, the top-ranked team in the FCS.

The FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA, is the second-highest level of college football in the country, after the Football Bowl Subdivision. The FCS level has 128 teams in 13 conferences and one group of independents as of the 2021 season. Dixie State announced it was transitioning to the FCS in January 2019.

To put the difficulty of the Dixie State schedule in perspective, six of their opponents this year were ranked in the top 25 as of Nov. 22. 

"It was tough at times, but this season was about learning life lessons for us," Kannely-Robles said. "We played our hearts out. We came to understand that this Division 1 football subdivision game is no joke."

Drew Kannely-Robles takes the handoff during Dixie State's homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Kannely-Robles said the team battled each week and came close in several contests. Still, they grew as a squad as the year progressed, he said.

While it was tough to lose so many games, Kannely-Robles said he is proud to have helped set a positive foundation for Dixie State football. He predicted the program will continue improving and making a mark in the FCS in the coming years. 

A proud coach

After graduating from Yreka High School in 2016, Kannely-Robles stayed in Siskiyou County to play football at College of the Siskiyous in Weed. 

Charlie Roche was the head football coach at COS at the time. Now the athletic director at the two-year college, he recalled they originally envisioned him as a safety, a position he also played in high school, as he redshirted his first year. During practices, Roche said they began to realize how well Kannely-Robles moved with the ball in his hands and was able to find the open holes at running back. 

While Kannely-Robles wanted to play running back, he never complained and just went out each day with a quiet determination and did his job, Roche said. 

“Drew is so humble. He just went with the flow,” Roche said. “He worked hard, grew, and got bigger and stronger. He became a premier running back for us.” 

After Kannely-Robles transferred, Roche would check on Dixie State's schedule to see how his former player was doing.

He believed Kannely-Robles would come back from his torn ACL and knew he could play well on the next level, the proud coach said.

Roche recalled a game at COS against American River in which the other team surrounded Kannely-Robles, but he found a way to evade at least 11 tackles on his way to score a touchdown. He said moments like that convinced him that Drew was a special talent. 

At COS, he rushed for 1,715 yards and 19 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore and caught 16 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Kannely-Robles earned first team All-NorCal League honors. 

“His teammates respected him, and he made everyone around him better,” Roche said. 

End of playing football?

"Playing this season was likely the end of my football playing career," Kannely-Robles said, "It's a bit emotional."

He said if for some reason he were given a chance to try out for a pro team, he would consider it but does not expect it to happen.

Nonetheless, he plans to continue being involved in the sport.

Kannely-Robles is set to graduate in May from Dixie State with a degree in sports management. After graduation, he may join the Dixie State coaching staff as a graduate assistant.

"I think I'm ready to move on to my next thing," he said. "Football will always be an important part of my life." 

Drew Kannely-Robles pulls away from the defense for a 47-yard touchdown.

Kannely-Robles added he hopes to be a coach or involved in the sport in some sort of capacity.

Roche said he believes that Kannely-Robles has the right mindset and determination to do things the right way as a football coach. He mentioned perhaps one day he could return to COS and join the coaching staff. 

“I think he’ll be a good coach,” Roche said, saying he has the character traits a coach needs. 

“As a football coach, you need to put in a lot of hard work, and I know he’s not scared of that,” Roche said. 

For his final game against Missouri State at home on Nov. 20, Kannely-Robles said his parents, two of his brothers and three of his good friends from Yreka went up to Utah. He said to have them with him and share in his last day on the football field in college is a memory he will cherish. 

Bill Choy covers sports and general news for the Siskiyou Daily News/Mount Shasta Herald/USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter at@SDNBillChoy. Email Bill at bchoy@siskiyoudaily.com. Support local journalism by subscribing today.