With around four minutes left on the clock, Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins took a snap for the Scarlet team in the annual spring game, and connected with redshirt junior wide receiver Johnnie Dixon for an 18-yard touchdown. Although any score is celebrated between the player who crossed the goal line and his teammates, this one especially got the sidelines in a frenzy.
For Dixon, it had been three years in the making.
“It was a lot of fun for me. Haven’t been able to catch a passing touchdown since high school days,” he said. “It’s always fun to go out and be able to compete because I’m fully healthy.”
After being plagued with leg and knee injuries his first two years in Columbus, Dixon is finally in a physical state to compete. Last season, after dealing with arthritic knees, the Palm Beach, Florida, native had to sit and watch OSU play in a bowl game without him.
Even worse, he had to watch the Buckeyes receive a 31-0 drubbing from Clemson.
After struggling to stay on the field, and missing most of his first two seasons with the Scarlet and Gray, it had became almost too much for him. Dixon said he was nearly at his wits end, and was having thoughts about his future as he sat in his locker in Phoenix, Arizona, with a pained expression on his face.
“I did not think I was going to be here,” he said after the spring game.
OSU coach Urban Meyer was unsure what to do with his wide receiver who just couldn’t seem to play long enough to make an impact.
“Johnnie is an enigma,” Meyer said after the spring game. “He’s a very highly recruited guy out of Dwyer High School, a very talented guy, nice person. But he got here, had this tendonitis and issues in his knees, and he would go two practices and have to miss two. And it was frustrating for all of us. When he was healthy, he just didn’t make plays, because he would never practice enough to get in the rhythm.”
But, just four months removed from the day he thought his career might be over, Dixon shed the shell of an injury-plagued wideout, and performed in front of 80,000 fans in Ohio Stadium. It might not have been a real game, but it was still an immense step forward for a guy who thought his career was over.
“It’s amazing,” Dixon said. “I haven’t missed a day of practice. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. It was amazing. Every day to be out there, to bring the energy to the group and all that. It was an amazing feeling.”
With the lack of a deep threat last season, Dixon showed he very well could provide downfield potential on Saturday.
He torched redshirt sophomore cornerback Kendall Sheffield on a 44-yard fade route from redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow. Sheffield got his head turned in the wrong direction, and Dixon made him pay with a score.
However, perhaps the most impressive feat for Dixon was his showstopping juke, leaving three defenders in the dust. On a pair of knees that have been known to fail him before, Dixon pulled off the best move of the day.
The crowd seemed to hold its collective breath for a moment, before letting out an exuberant cheer.
Dixon enjoyed putting his moves on display, and even seemed to surprise himself.
“I haven’t done that one since elementary school,” he said.
Coming into 2017, Dixon has just seven career receptions for 55 yards. On Saturday, he posted six receptions for 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and consistently appeared up to the task of being the shifty down-the-field target OSU has been missing.
Burrow was especially impressed with his performance.
“When I got here two years ago, I thought he was a freak athlete,” Burrow said. “I didn’t really know he had the injury problems and obviously they just kept building up. This spring, it looks like he’s been healthy. He’s had a great spring. Obviously really fast, really explosive, and he’s a great guy to have on the team.”
Still, the fact of the matter remains that Dixon has a history of limited play due to problematic knees. Even though injuries to the lower extremities have ended the careers of wideouts early in the past, Dixon isn’t worried about what could come if he goes down again.
“I’m not concerned about it,” he said. “You gotta let that go. You can’t think about it. Just continue to hit my rehab how I am. If I’m feeling good like this every day, I feel like I can do it in the season.”
It’s been a long journey for Dixon to even get on the field for a simple intrasquad scrimmage. Whether he can stay a relevant factor on offense remains to be seen.
Dixon will get his chance again when OSU kicks off the regular season on Aug. 31 against Indiana.