COLUMBUS, Ohio – For months, everyone who talked about Johnnie Dixon, a 4-star wide receiver out of Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer High School, would say simply, and in some cases aggressively, that there was just no way he’d ever commit to playing football at Ohio State.
The country’s ninth-ranked wideout had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, the hometown Miami Hurricanes and pretty much anyone else that was anybody in college football. Guys from South Florida, especially skill players like wide receivers, don’t need to go to Ohio State.
Yet, Dixon chose the Buckeyes over the Hurricanes, the Crimson Tide and everyone else in December 2014 and never looked back. He enrolled at the Ohio State three weeks later, one of seven members from his recruiting class to do so. When he arrived in Columbus, Dixon – speaking during Ohio State’s 2016 media day – recalled feeling out-of-place but sure of his choice.
“The biggest change for me, coming from Florida, was that I really had to grow up early, which was good,” Dixon told Landof10. “Some guys can go to college and go day-by-day, but never grow up, never mature.
“Sometimes, when you think about leaving a place like Florida, one of the things that makes it hard is not really feeling like people know you, you know? Your lingo, the way you talk and all that. It makes it more comfortable to have your friends around you, but for me, I got here early and I had to get real close with the guys on my team.”
While the 5-foot-10, 187-pound Dixon was working toward becoming comfortable in Columbus, a 5-star prospect quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) American Heritage High School was turning heads across the country. With a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, 4.3 speed and an uncanny ability to throw a beautiful deep ball while on the run, Torrance Gibson was – for a moment – the most wanted quarterback in the country. Gibson’s recruitment was all over the map.
In July 2014, Urban Meyer, Zach Smith and the Buckeyes were preparing for their biggest recruiting camp of the summer, Friday Night Lights, and Gibson was on their mind. More importantly for the Florida star, he was on their visitors list. Ohio State had slowed communication with Gibson to an almost non-existent level, backing off the talented athlete out of worry that for all his ability, he may not be worth the trouble. He was immature and volatile. After seeing that he’d been acting childishly — his social media was a mess, unofficial visits were treated like resort vacations, and he found himself in some trouble off the field with the Patriots —Gibson and the Buckeyes had a serious conversation about his future with Ohio State laying out exactly what they’d need to see from him.
“A lot of coaches, they’re going to say you’re a dream, they’ll say anything,” Gibson said. “(Urban) Meyer got right to the point. He’s like, ‘I’m not promising you anything. You have to earn every bit of playing time.’ That’s what probably locked in the most for me. I didn’t want to go in and just be told, ‘Hey you’re the starter because of your athletic ability.’
“I chose Ohio State for many reasons. I wanted to grow as a person, as a man. In the meeting with my mom and Coach Meyer, Coach Zach (Smith), Coach Tim Beck; my mom, she told them, ‘Teach my son how to become a man.’ He shook her hand and told her, ‘I will teach your son how to become a man.’”
He could have gone anywhere he wanted, but he, like Dixon, chose Ohio State. His reason was simple: he didn’t want to be coddled; he wanted to grow up. He wanted to be great and believed that the Buckeyes gave him the best path to achieve that. That reason – the desire to be great and to understand the work needed to reach that goal – is what makes these South Florida stars think about hitting I 75-northbound from the Sunshine State to a place where they can truly shine.
“Each situation was unique, but, a lot of what we have to offer is the same for each kid,” said Smith, in his fifth-year as an Urban Meyer assistant. “I think the thing that brought them here, honestly, is the culture we have. I can’t speak for the places that are closer to (their) home, but I know the quality of kid we have at Ohio State is phenomenal. I know how these kids work and the way the culture – because of guys like Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott – has been developed here, those Florida kids come up and see them and they’re like ‘Wow, these guys are grinding.’
“Every kid I’ve recruited from South Florida, those kids all want to be elite. They want to be great. They want to be on a different level and they’re seeing only a few different programs that can get them there. They come visit up here and see it here, in person. They walk away feeling like ‘This place will help me achieve my goals.’”
As Meyer was having “the talk” with Gibson that July night in 2014, another South Florida wideout was the talk of the Buckeyes’ ultra-competitive recruiting camp. Coconut Creek’s Binjimen Victor, a too-skinny 6-foot-4 prospect, lit up the competition all night and found himself skyrocketing up the Buckeyes’ recruiting board. After a year and a half of blowing up nationally and collecting more than 40 scholarship offers, the 4-star prospect committed to Ohio State, following in the footsteps of Dixon and Gibson. The trio, three of the Buckeyes’ top prospects in their respective recruiting classes, were all from South Florida, all recruited by Smith.
“I knew it was going to be Ohio State for me for a long time,” Victor said at media day. “The connections I had with the coaching staff were different than I had with others. It just felt like they were going to make me into a better man. I know I can play football and could play anywhere but what they talked about was not always about football.”
Victor said having Dixon and Gibson, now a redshirt freshman, on campus has helped ease his transition. The freshman arrived in Columbus in June and it’s not an easy move no matter how talented the football player.
“There’s no doubt that it helps to have those guys up here because they’ve been through it,” he said. “They know how to talk to me, to show me the ropes. They have made me feel like one of the guys already. It’s easier when you know where someone comes from because you sort of know who they are.”
Having been through it already, Dixon was able to help convince Gibson from leaving school in October 2015.
“JD talked to me,” Gibson said. “He was like ‘Where you gonna go? You can’t go back to Florida. What are you going to do in Florida? You’re just going to go back there and get in trouble.'”
It’s that kind of quiet leadership from Dixon that has turned him into someone his peers look up to at Ohio State, said his position coach.
“He’s got such an infectious personality,” Smith said of his oft-injured junior. “He knew Ben and Torrance down there, and I think they may have seen how he’s matured and developed as a person. That’s something people notice. He’s one of the stronger role models on the team.”
It’s now August 2016 and with the three highly ranked South Florida stars on campus, things are going to plan. Dixon, Gibson and Victor are working toward becoming the people and the players they want to be. That, Smith says, is why even though none of them have made a real impact on the field (Dixon has one career catch), they’re all still grinding and they’re all expected to be a major part of the Buckeyes’ future plans. How can leaving school, like Gibson wanted to, make you great?
“This program is based on clarity. There’s no confusion. If someone doesn’t play, or doesn’t touch they ball, they know why,” Smith said. “If they have or have not played, they know exactly why. Period. Johnnie Dixon is very talented, and he should have played more, but he’s been hurt. Torrance wasn’t ready emotionally, so who is to blame if they haven’t played? Ben will have to show he can bring it every day if he wants to break into a very deep group. That’s just the way it is here: clarity. It’s all about standards. If they went to another school, somewhere with lesser talent around them or lesser standards, how is that going to help them be great? They’re not going to achieve their dreams by going to a school that challenges them less. They’re excited to get healthy and to compete here.”
If he has any regrets, Dixon doesn’t seem to be showing them.
“I’ve not really gotten the playing time yet to say how I’ve grown as a football player because I’ve been hurt,” he added. “But coming to Ohio State was about so much more than football. As a player though, I hope that I can answer that question this year. But, as a man, I know I’m more prepared for life after football than I would be if stayed closer to home. We have the job fair here, we have things to set you up for life after football and I know a lot of places don’t do that as effectively as we do, because it’s something that Urban Meyer really pushes.
“It really gives you insight into life beyond the game because this isn’t going to last forever. I want people back home see that I developed as a man and a player.”