The weeklong buildup to the University of Utah hosting Oregon State last weekend was marked by one specific factor.
Three-time All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe, Utah’s leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, was lost for the season the week before at Arizona State to a torn right ACL. That meant the Utes’ passing attack was bound to look different. More specifically, Kuithe’s targets, touches, and opportunities were newly up for grabs.
Knowing this, Devaughn Vele had a message for Jaylen Dixon.
“I even told him before the game, ‘This is your game, man. This is your opportunity to start making plays,’” Vele said of Dixon after the latter scored twice, once through the air and once on the ground, as part of a 42-16 Utes win. “He made the most of it and I was so excited for him. He’s been a part of this offense for a long time. He’s a guy I look up to, even as a veteran leader. Seeing him get the publicity and success he’s worked so hard for, it’s a blessing to see it.”
When Vele was presented with a postgame question about Dixon, he couldn’t help but answer with a smile.
When Dixon hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Cam Rising to open the scoring in the first quarter, the Utah sideline turned into a party.
When Dixon later scored on a 22-yard reverse near the end of the third quarter, same thing, seemingly more of a celebratory scene than just an ordinary touchdown.
No, those scores were not ordinary, which has everything to do with the road Dixon has traveled during his career.
After 56 catches for 932 and three touchdowns across his freshman and sophomore seasons in 2018 and 2019, Dixon hit the NCAA Transfer Portal on Oct. 12, 2020. Instead of leaving Utah, though, he remained enrolled, kept going to class, and was classified as a non-squad member of the football team.
On Feb. 2, 2021, Dixon withdrew his name from the transfer portal and returned to the team in time for spring practice, but not before meeting with Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham.
As the story goes, Dixon stepped away from football to deal with mental health issues. His desire to return coincided with his belief that his mental health had improved. In that meeting, Whittingham was receptive, but needed to hear certain things before green-lighting Dixon’s return.
“Needed to hear he was all in, he got himself together and was in a good place from a mental standpoint,” Whittingham said. “That it wasn’t just by default that he had nothing else going on. I needed to know he was sincerely and genuinely wanting to be a part of this football team and be a guy that would come in, be a great teammate, do whatever he was asked to do, and play his role to the utmost of his ability. That’s what he expressed to me.”
Added Dixon: “It may sound cliche, but I’m just having fun with the game. You come out here, you see yourself making plays, you visualize it, and it brings more confidence. It’s been great. I try to do the most I can. As a player, from a teammate’s perspective, I try to do the most I can. It’s great to know that it’s being seen by my teammates. It’s pretty cool.”
What happens next as the 11th-ranked Utes travel to No. 18 UCLA for a critical Pac-12 matchup (1:30 p.m., FOX) bears watching.
Without Kuithe against Oregon State, Rising completed passes to eight different receivers and targeted nine. On Monday afternoon, the All-Pac-12 quarterback called the offense’s output “definitely different” without Kuithe available.
The passing attack, sans Kuithe, will remain a puzzle for a little while. Vele has taken steps forward with 13 catches between the last two games. Tight end Dalton Kincaid is a known, capable pass-catching commodity. If Micah Bernard can continue being a receiving option out of the backfield, if Thomas Yassmin and Munir McClain can keep making strides at tight end, Utah and Rising can survive a Kuithe-less offense.
Dixon, though, might be more versatile than all of those guys. If he can keep being steady, keep making plays when called upon, it’s a huge boon for Rising and the offense.
“It’s rewarding, it’s fun for me, just because you’re always learning, whether you’re teaching them or you’re learning from the players, learning from the coaches,” said wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis, who was a graduate assistant at Utah in 2018 when Dixon was a freshman. “Just to see everything he’s gone through, and watch come in here every day and compete, battle, J.D. is a completely different person than he was last year. I saw him as a freshman. Last year, and then this year, he is more of a leader. In the meeting room, his conversations are different.”
Added Rising: “I know it’s been a bumpy road for him, and just to get to this point, to see him have that success, it’s made the whole team happy. I was happy for him, and I know when I called that play (the 22-yard reverse), I told him to go score and he handled the rest. He’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal person, and I’m glad to have him as a teammate.”