Jimmy Raye, the 49ers’ offensive philosopher-coordinator, was at the podium a few days ago when I asked him what he thought of Anthony Dixon, the rookie running back.
“I like him,” the long-time assistant said, breaking into a wide grin. “Though there are times I want to strangle him. He’s young, and you know how they say youth is wasted on the young. He’s young and he’s learning. He’s running over the quarterback and the lines. He’s just having fun, and he’s learning what to do.”
It isn’t hard to see where Raye is coming from. At 233 pounds, Dixon presents a rare combination of power and agility. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. And on several occasions, I have seen him step up and pick off a blitzing linebacker in the pocket. He did it this morning, in fact, facilitating a short completion from Jarrett Brown to Kyle Williams.
In other words, Dixon can do it all. But he doesn’t, at least not consistently.
On the first day of training camp, quarterback David Carr turned to pitch the ball to Dixon, but the running back wasn’t there. He had shot forward to the line of scrimmage, and Carr had to eat the ball. The next day Dixon bumped into Alex Smith as the QB was dropping back in 7-on-7. Today he got planted on his back by NaVorro Bowman in a blocking drill, then missed Bowman entirely on his next chance. A little later, in 9-on-7, running backs coach Tom Rathman barked at Dixon: “Get inside that fullback! Get inside!”
This truly is a crash course for the guy who set a school record at Mississippi State with 3,994 career rushing yards.
“It’s tough, man,” Dixon drawled at Cal State Monterey Bay on Thursday. “Coach Raye’s on me, man. Coach Rathman be on me. Sometimes I don’t know if he like me or not, the way he be looking at me and talking to me. Like he tells me in the big meeting, I gotta learn the little things, I gotta learn the little details, the dos and don’ts. At State I used to get away with a lot of freestyling sometimes. That was OK, you know? But I’m learning at the pro level that can get you hurt. That can get everybody fired, and I don’t want that. So I definitely want to get the details right so I can be accepted.”
In addition to the nuances of positioning and assignments, the 49ers are trying to get Dixon to get his pads lower and run north-south. They see him as a potential change of pace alongside Frank Gore, and they want him to be tough and decisive.
“I can’t run as high as I used to in college, you know, because some of them guys are small in college,” Dixon said. “I could just stiff ‘em off and keep on going. But not at this level. These are grown men out there, and they’re strong.”
As Raye said: “He’s a big-body man with quick feet, and we anticipate he will give us an inside, physically dominant presence in the later part of the season. It takes some of the load off of Frank and Glen (Coffee), and keeps Frank fresh for a purpose.”
The question is whether Dixon can unseat Coffee as Gore’s primary backup. After a strong 2009 preseason, Coffee never got going in the regular season and averaged just 2.7 yards on his 83 carries. He came in with more muscle in 2010, and Raye was quick to praise him.
“He’s got a big hill to climb,” the coordinator said of Dixon. “The No. 2 guy here isn’t too shabby, so if he steps up to that point where he is knocking that guy out, then we will really be pleased.”
If Dixon can truly apply himself and master the subtleties of the NFL game, you have to like his long-term prospects. He’s a downright scary sight when he takes a pitch or flare pass and gets those nimble feet moving downfield.
“I know my talent’s not an issue,” Dixon said. “It’s just me learning the playbook and learning where I’m supposed to be. … Once I do that I feel like I can blossom in this league.”