enigma (n.) enig-ma — 1. An obscure speech or writing. 2. something hard to understand or explain. 3. an inscrutable or mysterious person.
That is how Merriam-Webster defines the word Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer used to identify wide receiver Johnnie Dixon on Saturday after Scarlet beat Gray 38-31 in the program's annual Spring Game. Meyer's reasoning for selecting the term to dub the former four-star recruit peels back a layer into Dixon's sporadic career in Columbus.
“He's a very highly recruited guy out of Dwyer High School, a very talented guy, nice person,” Meyer said of Dixon. “But he got here, had this tendonitis and issues in his knees, and he would go two practices and have to miss two.”
Dixon just completed his fourth set of spring practices at Ohio State after enrolling in January 2014. Admittedly, he looked and felt the best he has since his true freshman season was cut short by knee surgeries. Dixon has spent more time on the sidelines in his career than on the turf that lies between them. So while what he did during the 15 practices in March and April 2017 is a step in the right direction for his career, he still has many hills to scale if he is to become what the Buckeyes thought he could be four years ago when they recruited him.
“He's healthy right now but he's still developing. He's played but for three years he's really been kind of not practicing,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said recently. “Here and there he'd have a practice, he'd go, he'd have a good practice. So right now we're trying to get him developed.”
“When he gets the ball, he's dangerous.”– J.T. Barrett on Dixon
The chronic knee issues are what have come to define Dixon to everyone on the outside looking in at Ohio State. They are what has held him back. And, they are what his teammates rib him about.
“He's got grandpa knees,” center Billy Price said. “That's what we joke with him all the time, he gets out of bed it's like, 'crack, crack.'”
As ominous as that sounds, Dixon knows better than anybody what it is like not have football in his life even despite being terribly fast, athletic and shifty. His six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns stood out during the spring game. There was a nice juke left past two defenders and a leap over Rodjay Burns in the end zone to reel in a scoring toss from Dwayne Haskins.
Flash. Flash. And flash again.
“That was a lot of fun,” Dixon said.
He spoke after the game about refocusing on his rehab in the months following Ohio State's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl — a game he watched in street clothes. Dixon has one career touchdown to his name, of the rushing variety in his team's blowout of Rutgers last October. Last spring, Meyer said Dixon's legs were four centimeters wider than when he arrived in Columbus because of a new workout regimen with Mickey Marotti that led to a boost in his squat totals.
Things were progressing in the right direction — then a misstep before the Michigan State game knocked him out for the rest of the season. Questions about his career in football inevitably crept back into his brain.
“I was just like, ‘Maybe it’s my time,’” Dixon said. “Like I said, every day around Columbus seeing my guys I was just like I’ve got to give it another shot. Where I’m from, people just go out and just quit so I feel like there’s a lot of people looking at me.”
There are even more now after what he did on Saturday. With speed to burn and a knowledge of the position — “he's been mentally developed for three years,” Smith says, “he understands football, he understands the position, he understands the offense” — Dixon could become an asset to the Ohio State receiving corps in 2017.
Naturally, the key word in that final phrase is could. With the health of his ailing knees defining him up to this point, Dixon is running out of chances to change the verbiage Meyer uses to describe him to others.
But rest assured — even if his teammates tease him about his lengthy injury report, they want what is best for him. They know Ohio State needs that for its passing game to get where it needs to be before the season opener Aug. 31.
“Johnnie is a very good guy, he's raised very well, he's another 'no BS' kind of guy,” Price said. “To see him go out there, make those plays and get back to that feeling that he always knew was in there, it's awesome.”
Added Barrett, who hopes to be throwing his way this fall: “When he gets the ball, he's dangerous.”
Dixon just enjoyed the first signs of consistent positivity in ages. More steps obviously have to be taken before the words "Johnnie Dixon" are coupled with "contributor" instead of "hurt" but he is on the right track and clearly feeling good. Even if the threat of finding himself on the injury report is higher than most players.
“I'm not concerned about it. You’ve got to let that go and not think about it,” Dixon said. “I just have to hit my rehab and if I’m feeling like I’m feeling like this every day I feel like I can do it in the season.”