How the Utes’ improved approach to athletes and mental health kept wide receiver Jaylen Dixon at Utah

Dixon had 56 catches for 932 yards and three touchdowns across the 2018 and 2019 seasons before sitting out 2020

(University of Utah Athletics) University of Utah wide receiver Jaylen Dixon, shown here at a recent practice, is returning to the Utes after sitting out the 2021 season

The reasoning behind Jaylen Dixon entering the NCAA Transfer Portal on Oct. 12 was murky.

After all, Dixon had been a productive slot receiver for the University of Utah, catching 56 passes for 932 yards and three touchdowns across the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Furthermore, his playing time and his role did not figure to diminish in 2020.

Ten months later, Dixon is still at Utah, ready to contribute for this Utes team, which is expected to contend for a third Pac-12 South title in four seasons. The Frisco, Texas, native’s time away from football was an exercise in patience and perseverance. His situation is a prime example of how college football programs and athletic departments have evolved in terms of addressing mental health issues, rather than ignoring them.

Dixon declined to go into specifics when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune after a recent practice, but he was willing to offer some insight.

“I had some things going on personally,” Dixon said. “It wasn’t about playing time or anything to do with my teammates. I love my teammates, it was just, sometimes you really have to take some time off to see what’s going on and what’s really right for you. After that time off, I really found that this is the right place for me. These teammates, this coaching staff.”

Dixon did not bail on the rest of the fall semester, did not leave campus in search of a fresh landing spot. Instead, the redshirt remained enrolled, kept going to class and was classified as a non-squad member. On Feb. 2, Dixon withdrew his name from the transfer portal and returned to the team, in time for spring practice.

In summation, Dixon left the program, missed the 2020 season, then came back to the program. At some point before he returned, though, Dixon had to have a conversation with head coach Kyle Whittingham before things could move forward.

There were no hard feelings, things were not awkward, Whittingham was not going to hold anything against Dixon. Instead, Dixon painted a picture that indicates Whittingham understood and was sympathetic toward whatever was going on in his players’ lives.

“It was mostly what’s going on with me, and knowing how important mental health is,” Dixon said. “There’s things that happen in your life that you can’t really control. You’ll have to be able to make decisions and make things happen, and whether that’s here or somewhere else, but I made the decision to come back and that’s what was best for me.

“I think Coach really understands things, makes it a point to really know his guys, and that’s why he’s a great coach. One of the reasons I came back was because he was thoughtful.”

Whittingham’s football upbringing happened in a bygone era. The 61-year-old played collegiately at BYU from 1978-81, then for two different USFL teams and the Los Angeles Rams’ replacement team during the infamous 1987 NFLPA strike. His coaching career began in 1985 as a BYU graduate assistant, while this will be his 17th full season as head coach at Utah.

Whittingham is willing to admit that during much of his time in the sport, mental health was not treated as a legitimate concern. He is also willing to admit that times have changed and that mental health, as well as advocating for one’s own mental health, has become a much bigger, much more significant piece of his job.

To paraphrase Dixon, Whittingham cares.

“When I played, that wasn’t even a topic. I mean, it didn’t exist,” Whittingham said last month at Pac-12 media day. “When I got into coaching, it didn’t exist. The last five, six, seven years it’s started to come to the forefront. I know it’s benefited a bunch of our players. Again, it’s something that we continually try to educate them that, hey, this is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Whittingham alludes to the fact that there is help to be given, not outside the University of Utah, but specifically, right inside the athletic department. The department’s wellness staff has four full-time counselors and two interns.

Those four full-timers include a director of psychology and wellness, Dr. Jonathan Ravarino, and a coordinator of mental performance, Dr. Clint Norseth. Sonia Johnson and Brian McCloud are both listed as mental health counselors.

Having a staff dedicated to mental health is not only in stark contrast to early in Whittingham’s coaching career, it is in stark contrast to even a decade ago when few, if any, Division I athletic departments were staffing one, let alone multiple health experts.

“It’s not a sign of being weak or not tough or any of that stuff,” Whittingham said. “It’s reality. Let us know when you’re hurting and when you need some help and we’ll make sure we get it for you.”

Mental health has morphed into a bigger topic of conversation at all levels of sports in recent years, but there are two recent high-profile instances that brought the topic back under a bright light.

In June, Naomi Osaka made the decision to withdraw from the French Open. That decision from the four-time Grand Slam winner came in the aftermath of her decision not speak to the media during the tournament in order to protect her mental health.

Last month at the Tokyo Olympics, United States gymnastics star Simone Biles withdrew from the team final, citing mental health issues. She later withdrew from the individual all-around, vault, floor and uneven bars competitions, before returning for the beam final.

“Mental health is huge, and I think nowadays, people are talking about it a lot more,” Dixon said. “It used to be a thing you didn’t talk about because you’d get called soft or weak, but it’s important. You have to make sure you’re OK, making sure you’re reaching out to people, letting someone know what’s going on with you.”

Given his previous production, Dixon’s return to Utah is a boon at a position where there continues to be questions in terms of depth as fall camp winds down.

Dixon, who was second in the Pac-12 in yards-per-reception as a freshman in 2018, Britain Covey, Solomon Enis, Devaughn Vele and Oklahoma transfer Theo Howard are, at the moment, projected as the first five options on the depth chart.

Given Utah employs the tight end as a legitimate pass-catching option, maybe the Utes could get away with five wide receivers, but they would like more. Munir McClain, a 6-foot-4 USC transfer, is an intriguing possibility as a breakout candidate if fully healthy.

Yes, there are questions in that position room, but Dixon should not be one of them.

“I think the hardest part is the confidence, knowing that I can be the same guy that I was before,” Dixon said. “I’m not going to have great days all the time, I’ll make some mistakes, but just making sure that it’s a new mistake and not an old one that I’ve already made before.

“I think I’m a player that can do it all. I’m a player that can go downfield and make deep plays, have my yards-per-catch be high. I can block. I’m pretty small, but I can make those plays. If you want to say one thing I do really, really well, it’s being a deep threat.”