USC Gamecocks Football

He had to start senior season getting teammates water. What this Gamecock came through

Meet USC football’s freshman class

The University of South Carolina's highly acclaimed recruiting class includes quarterback Ryan Hilinski and defensive lineman Zacch Pickens.
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The University of South Carolina's highly acclaimed recruiting class includes quarterback Ryan Hilinski and defensive lineman Zacch Pickens.

South Carolina freshman cornerback John Dixon remembered it as one of the more difficult times he’d gone through.

There was the injury, eight months sidelined at the same time as numerous transitions in a young man’s life.

“It was terrible,” Dixon told The State before enrolling at USC. “Football is most all I do. So that time was rough.”

But it was something his coach Jason Lane saw in a whole other light.

“It was a character-developing period of time,” Lane said. “A lot of these young people I’m working with, more so we’re trying to figure out how to navigate through life and its challenges. John had an opportunity to grow quite a bit as a young man because he was used to being a star player, and in his case, he wasn’t necessarily able to contribute.”

He was a star defensive back earlier in his career. He went to a new place in Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida, and when he arrived he couldn’t get on the field because of a ruptured patella tendon.

And at that point, he instead took on a role of support, something Lane bragged about to anyone who would listen.

“He spent time as the waterboy,” Lane said. “We had a four-star corner that was getting water for our team. It was a great developmental time for him mentally and emotionally.”

To understand the full context, one has to go back farther. At Wharton High in the Tampa area, Dixon had been a stud. He played corner and safety when the team needed it. He showed out at a South Carolina camp, taking on all comers, including three-star receiver Jeshaun Jones, now at Maryland.

He had offers from Alabama and Ohio State, but his knee and situation both created hurdles.

The knee cost him four games of his junior season, and that was before the patella tendon was fully ruptured. It cost him the offseason and the start of his senior campaign.

Then were the challenges of environment, which led to a transfer before his final year. Dixon’s father is in law enforcement, and Lane described a family not quite being satisfied with the level of structure at his previous school.

“Kids are going to align with those who will enable them to be who they are at that point in life,” Lane said. “So you’re going to hang with those who may have some of the same flaws and temptations that you’re dealing with, and in essence you enable each other.”

The byproduct there was academic ground that had to be made up. That left Ohio State and Alabama cooling and falling away in the process.

Johnny Dixon 247 Sports

The Chamberlain High program pushed a little more, had more elements of accountability, especially on the classroom side. And Lane said Dixon flourished there.

“He respected it,” Lane said. “And I think he enjoyed being pushed. I don’t think he had that connection before he arrived here.”

Coming through all that might have taken some blue-blood options off the table for Dixon, but it means the Gamecocks could be getting quite a talent.

Dixon missed one game as a senior and played sparingly in two others. Lane estimates the team didn’t really start getting high-level play out of him until about the sixth game. (He still played corner, returned kicks and punts and would have played wide receiver with a full preseason practice to work on it.)

Then he gave his coach a special kind of peace of mind.

“I didn’t worry about that side of the field,” Lane said.

That’s from a coach who admitted he didn’t even get the best football Dixon had to offer.

Dixon sees himself as a versatile defensive back, one who can play man or zone. He doesn’t fear run support, part of the reason he moved to safety as a sophomore.

“Whenever I have to get in somebody’s face, that’s when I’m most comfortable,” Dixon said. “I like my presence to be known. I like to truly stick a receiver.”

When Dixon signed, Will Muschamp raved about the explosiveness the sophomore showed off as a camper. High-level numbers and high-level play in that kind of environment are usually a good mark for this coaching staff, and Dixon remembered showing out in a particular way.

It started with Jeshaun Jones, who had 288 yards and five touchdowns at Maryland as a freshman.

“I was covering people like him,” Dixon said. “None of them caught a ball on me, probably like that whole day. One, two balls were caught on me. There was a whole lot of athletes that were just a good as him. And I’m a year or two younger than some of them, so I just felt like I did real good.”

It left his now-position coach Travaris Robinson issuing a particular message.

“During 1-on-1s, coach T-Rob was saying if anyone had a problem with me, I’ll have to stick them,” Dixon said.

He valued the loyalty the coaches showed through the recruiting process. As some schools fell away, the Gamecocks were always there. Dixon still looked at Miami and Penn State, but USC won out.

He’s spent the past two months in the hands of Gamecocks strength coach Jeff Dillman, and even before that was getting strong guidance. He worked out five days a week in the spring — three lifting, two running — and worked with Sherman Armstrong, once part of the strength and speed staff at Georgia under Mark Richt.

He’ll join a position in need of depth, but also one where South Carolina has oft thrown in young players. The top two corner spots are held by sophomores Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, who both played as freshmen. Behind them, it’s A.J. Turner, who is primarily a running back.

Dixon, Cam Smith and perhaps Shilo Sanders are freshmen who could have a say about that corner rotation with a good August camp. Dixon said Robinson told him playing time was available if he learned the defense.

And after all Dixon came through, from star to transfer to four-star waterboy to help the team, he has sights set on earning a spot.

“I feel like I can,” Dixon said. “I’m going to do everything that I can to do so.”