The Badgers believe true freshman D'Cota Dixon (16) can help them level the playing field in the pass game.
Eliminating the mismatches
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - D’Cota Dixon will stay up late sometimes. The freshman will grab his iPad, jump into his bed at The Regent Apartments and study that day’s film from practice and go over the latest additions to the University of Wisconsin’s defensive playbook. It’s almost a guarantee that during the study session a question or two will pop into his head. It’s at that point the linebacker will whip out his cellphone to shoot off a text to senior Derek Landisch – no matter what time it is.
“I feel so bad, because when we have new installs I’ll text him and ask him a question, but I’ll be doing it late because I’ll stay up and try to make sure I’ve got (it down) and don’t have to think about it,” said Dixon, who thinks his latest text going out came after midnight with an early morning workout just a few hours away. “I feel bad because I always text him. I feel like I annoy him.”
The texts, which Dixon said Landisch always replies to, are vital for the Oak Hill, Florida, native. He’s making an uncommon position change, going from the cornerback spot he played in high school to the inside linebacker position at Wisconsin.
“Once I got here Coach Aranda asked me what I thought about it,” Dixon said of the Badgers’ defensive coordinator. “I told him I was alright with it. Whatever (way) to get me on the field. I don’t care what it is, I’ll play it.”
The change was made for a simple reason; Offenses love mismatches. The opportunity for teams to get a running back or tight end working against a bigger linebacker in open space has skyrocketed with the explosion of spread offenses. Though undersized as a typical linebacker, the 5-foot-10, 206-pound, Dixon has the instincts of a corner that helped make him a first-team all-state selection by the Associated Press as a senior.
“The more things you do on third down the less people do on offense, and the more matchups they look for,” Aranda said after Saturday’s practice. “You have all these exotic blitzes and bring all these people. Well, the ball is coming out quick, and they’re finding your weakest link. It’s a mismatch. It’s small ball so to speak.
"(In) baseball we’re bunting, we’re stealing second and everything else as opposed to hitting home runs. We need guys that can match that small ball mentality and not be mismatched versus backs out of the backfield and everything like that. He gives us that.”
Right now, UW has Dixon playing as a dime linebacker, meaning he’s on the field in passing situations. That’s likely how they’ll use him this year, though injuries to the Badgers’ top three inside linebackers could force their hand.
“Because of injuries and everything else he’s been (getting reps) in (early down situations),” Aranda said. “(Right tackle) Rob Havenstein is blocking down on him and D’Cota disappears. That’s just where it’s at right now. That was not the plan to have him do those types of things, and I don’t see him in that position when we get to a game. I see him purely in sub downs where we can change the math and not be outgunned when they’re getting isolation routes on us.”
It won’t just be coverage for Dixon. The Badgers expect to use him in their effort to create havoc in the backfield.
“I’m comfortable with it,” said Dixon of blitzing, something he did rarely while in high school “It lets me take out aggression on somebody.”
You can view Dixon in this way. There are countless stories of basketball players, including Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, being point guards growing up, hitting a growth spurt but maintaining their dribbling and passing skills. For Dixon, he’s already got the coverage skills after playing nearly every position other than linebacker on defense. Now it’s a matter of everything else that goes into playing the position.
“I’ve grown up with the mentality of a coverage type of guy,” Dixon said. “Whether it be man or zone. Even making open field tackles. It’s just a day-by-day thing. You got to improve. Obviously it’s at the next level. It’s little bit harder, a little bit bigger, a little bit faster, but it’s nothing that I can’t handle.”
Still, you can’t just throw a former cornerback into the box without thinking he can hold up physically -- no matter what down it is. You need to be of a certain mindset to play inside if you’re a smaller guy and Dixon does.
“(I’ve never dealt) with going in the trenches, but I’m adjusting to it,” Dixon said. “It’s not as bad as everybody thinks. At first it was. I got tossed a couple times, but now I’m starting to hold my gaps and get an understanding of what’s going on.
“I love contact. That’s why I don’t get too mad about the linebacker position. I actually love contact. I love hitting.”
And he won’t be pushed around. Early in camp he got into a shoving match with a tight end that outweighed him by 40 pounds and held his own.
“You’re the new guy on the block, so you got to show them how you are and who you are,” Dixon said. “Especially with me at linebacker. I’m not like Landisch at 230 (pounds), but I’m going to hit like it.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin