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One last chance

YSU LB Dixon seeks strong finish in final collegiate season

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU senior linebacker Grant Dixon makes a call during an individual drill Saturday afternoon at Stambaugh Stadium.

YOUNGSTOWN — After a few successful seasons at Marist College, linebacker Grant Dixon found his senior campaign in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FCS had already postponed its games until the spring, and it was doubtful that the Red Foxes were going to take the field during that unconventional season, which they didn’t.

So, with his undergraduate degree in hand, the New Jersey native entered his name into the transfer portal, seeking an opportunity to continue his collegiate football career as a graduate transfer. Meanwhile, the Youngstown State coaching staff was in search of an experienced linebacker to add to its roster.

“Coach Nardo, Coach Phillips and Coach Schaefer connected with me when I entered the transfer portal,” Dixon said of YSU’s linebackers coach, Bryan Nardo; head coach Doug Phillips; and defensive coordinator Joe Schaefer. “They were up-front guys right away.”

“The biggest thing we looked for in the portal was a grad transfer,” Nardo said. “Grant’s name came up as someone who had played a lot of football, so we did our research. We actually reached out to the head coach and defensive coordinator at Marist, who both spoke highly of him. So from there it was getting the right people involved in recruiting him and getting him to say yes.”

The two sides began forging a relationship, albeit in an unconventional fashion. The NCAA put a stop to in-person recruiting visits during the pandemic, so Dixon and the coaches talked to each other by phone and via Zoom video conferences.

Things ended up working out in the end and Dixon, who led Marist in tackles in 2019 with 86, took a leap of faith and joined the Penguins for their spring campaign.

He arrived on campus Jan. 8. The Penguins kicked off their spring season Feb. 21.

It wasn’t long before he found himself as a team leader, according to Phillips.

“He showed up on Jan. 8, we played games in February and the team picked him to be a game captain three times during the season,” the second-year coach said. “He fit in well with our young men and demonstrated his leadership.”

On the field, Dixon led the Penguins in tackles (55) and tackles for loss (6), and added two sacks and an interception during YSU’s seven-game spring season.

His 55 tackles were ninth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and his spring campaign earned him a spot on the league’s All-Conference First Team. He also landed on the MVFC’s Preseason First Team.

The thing that has allowed Dixon to be so successful in the short span of time he’s been at YSU? According to his coaches, it’s his work ethic.

“One thing that Grant has demonstrated is a play-hard mentality,” Phillips said. “We say there’s three types of football players — play hard, go hard and lazy. We don’t have lazy kids, and go-hard players pick and choose when to go hard. Naturally, that’s what most of us do.

“But then there’s a few guys that innately just play hard every play. That’s what he demonstrated this spring. Even if he made a mistake, his play-hard (mindset) made up for it, and he made plays.”

Schaefer added, “He plays with a ton of energy. He’s a great example to show everyone else what ‘play hard’ looks like. He plays his tail off.”

With the NCAA ruling that the 2020-2021 season wouldn’t count toward an athlete’s four seasons of eligibility, Dixon was able to return to YSU for the Penguins’ fall campaign this season.

Dixon says his main priority this fall is to just “do his job” alongside the rest of the defense.

In terms of his growth as a player, Phillips and Schaefer say Dixon continues to soak in new information as a player each day. That’s allowing them to diversify what he can do for the Penguins’ defense.

“The growing part for him isn’t over. … Grant is one to walk off the field or from the film room knowing he learned something new. He’s like a sponge,” Phillips said.

Schaeffer added, “I think he’s learning it all right now, just moving him around quite a bit and how he can play from different spots on the field. He’s taking to it and loves to do it, and we’ll go from there.”

Dixon will graduate from YSU in December with a Master’s in Business Administration. That said, he said he’s keeping his focus on the present and hasn’t thought down the road yet.

“My plan is to give this season everything I have. If stuff works out in the future, who knows?” he said. “But I’m focusing right now on this preseason, this team and this defense to get ready to go as best we can and to get ready for Incarnate Word.”

The Penguins open up their fall slate against UIW on Sept. 2.

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