Dixon puts knee injury in rear view mirror

Published 6:19 pm Monday, August 8, 2011

East Carolina weakside linebacker Justin Dixon participates in a drill on Friday during the Pirates first official practice of the year. In 2010, Dixon tore his ACL in the fourth game of the season but now the sophomore is back and on schedule to play in the Pirates’ season opener on Sept. 3 against South Carolina. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — It was a dream season for Justin Dixon, until it turned into a nightmare.
Heading into the fourth game of the year the freshman linebacker-turned defensive end was leading East Carolina in sacks and tackles for a loss. However, in a cruel ironic twist, the sack master’s season was sacked as he was pursuing North Carolina quarterback Tyler Yates.
“I definitely remember the play to this day,” Dixon said at the school’s media day on Saturday. “I was going after Yates and I had my hand on him and he stepped up. As he stepped up something happen to my leg — my knee — and I didn’t really know what it was. I actually ran to the ball and ran off the field. I didn’t feel any pain at all until I got to the sideline and I was like ‘this doesn’t feel right, I think I tweaked something.’ I was telling them ‘I can go back in. I’m good, I’m good.’ But I came to find out I tore my ACL partially.”
The partial tear of Dixon’s anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee also tore hole in the Pirates defense, as they would have to play the rest of the 2010 season without its top pass rusher.
East Carolina, which would end up finishing the year 6-7 and making it to the Military Bowl, would field one of the worst defenses in the country.
For Dixon, who sat out the remainder of the year, being forced to look on from the sideline was as painful as the injury itself.
“It was tough, man,” Dixon said. “Seeing my defense struggle, seeing my guys struggle, knowing that I can’t do anything about it. I started blaming myself a little bit saying ‘Why did I get hurt? Why did I go after him like that?’ But, it’s a new season, a new game. You can’t look back at last year, the only thing you can do is get ready for this new defense and get ready for the first game.”
When first-year coach Ruffin McNeill and first-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell took over for the departed Skip Holtz last season they both placed a major emphasis on having an attacking defense that would get after the quarterback. However, the combination of injuries and inexperienced, undersized players led to the team ranking 109th in the country in sacks with a mere 14. It also led to the team switching from a 4-3 base formation to a 3-4, a move that will put Dixon, whose three sacks in four games would allow him to end the season tied for the team lead, at weakside linebacker.
“Basically, I’ll be a standup defensive end. It’s kind of the same thing that the Pittsburgh (Steelers) run,” Dixon said. “I get to do a little pass coverage, but I’ll still be rushing. It’s going to be fun.”
During his high school days at Smithfield, Dixon was often asked to shuffle between the D-line and linebacker spots and said he is comfortable wherever the team puts him.
“I played linebacker and defensive end in high school, it’s nothing really new to me,” Dixon said. “It’s a little bit different I guess because I actually played middle linebacker in high school but it’s the same: pass coverage and pass rush.”
The biggest change for Dixon from last year to this year is that the 6-1, 252-pound sophomore has more responsibility against the pass.
“Definitely, and I have no problem with that, I’m actually good at pass coverage,” Dixon said. “I can move, I got good hips so it shouldn’t be a problem at all.”
In this scheme, Dixon will be generally matched up against tight ends, but a lot of times he will have to guard an area more than an individual.
“Yea, I definitely get matched up with a lot of tight ends,” Dixon said. “It depends on what the call is, but most of the time if it’s pass coverage I will be in a zone just covering one spot … But, it depends on the call.”
As of now, Dixon who praised his work with new assistant athletic director/strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors, said he knee feels strong and anticipates playing in the team’s season opener against No. 12 South Carolina on Sept. 3, in Charlotte.
“The knee is not a problem right now, the knee is not an issue,” Dixon said. “It’s just getting back into it, I have been out for six or seven months. It didn’t hurt me, I just have to get back to getting used to (playing football) … I just got to take it day by day, everything feels good. The knee is 100 percent.”