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June 20, 2008

Dixon powers Mississippi State's SEC hopes

» MORE: Preseason Countdown: No. 48 Mississippi State | Rivals.com Preseason Countdown

Mississippi State tailback Anthony Dixon knew he was in trouble: His mother was in town.

Hell hath no fury like an angry mom.

It was his freshman year, and Dixon was enjoying too much of the freedom that's afforded to rising stars in the SEC.

"Coach (Sylvester) Croom called up his mama (Velma)," Bulldogs offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey says. "And she came and took away his car. That's the thing about Anthony: Whenever he isn't doing what we want him to do, we can call his mother and we know she'll straighten him out."

Look at Dixon now. He's a 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior with 1,734 career rushing yards. He has scored 23 TDs and has six 100-yard games. Last season, he became the first Mississippi State sophomore to rush for 1,000 yards (1,066, with 14 TDs), on a school-record 287 carries. He helped the Bulldogs cap an 8-5 season with a victory over UCF in the Liberty Bowl by scoring the game-winning TD. It was Mississippi State's first bowl appearance since 2000.

"We want more," says Dixon, who has helped State topple Alabama each of the past two seasons as well as shock Auburn last season. "Our goal? We want to win the national championship."

He's serious. But first things first: Mississippi State must win its first SEC West title since 1998 before anything else can happen. The defense again will be strong. While the offense is making strides, it needs a steady passing game to balance a physical ground assault.

There is no doubt this is a program on the rise under Croom, but a return to the postseason is a more realistic goal than winning it all – or even an SEC West crown. State hasn't been to consecutive bowls since going to three in a row from 1998-2000. A big season from Dixon—who compares himself with Kansas City's Larry Johnson – is a must.

"He left about 500 yards on the field last year," Croom says. "He's a big, strong runner who can catch the ball. But he needs to work on the little things, like pass protection and being patient while his blocks set up.

"That's the thing about Anthony: Whenever he isn't doing what we want him to do, we can call his mother and we know she'll straighten him out."
— Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey
"He still isn't near the back he should be. If he does what he has been told, there's no doubt he can be one of the better backs in the country."

Mississippi State players knew from the first day Dixon hit the field as a true freshman in August 2006 that he was good – and tough.

"Anthony wanted it early on," McCorvey says. "What surprised me most was his ability to grasp our system quickly. The running part was easy for him. He was mature beyond his years."

His hard-charging style led veterans such as defensive end Deljuan Robinson and linebacker Quinton Culberson to shout out to Dixon as he entered the dining room, "If you want to win, put Boobie in!"

That's "Boobie" as in Boobie Miles, a reference to a character in the movie "Friday Night Lights." Like Miles, Dixon was a difference-maker, a guy who needed to play if your team wanted to win.

The nickname has stuck. "Boobie" Dixon's first star turn came late in 2006, when he capped a strong debut season by rushing for 335 yards in the final three games. The highlight: a 121-yard effort in an upset at Alabama. During Mississippi State's final offensive possession against the Tide, Dixon carried seven times for 17 clock-draining yards to clinch the win. Dixon earned Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week honors.

"That's the game when I thought to myself that I could play at this level," says Dixon, who ran for 668 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman.

Earlier that season, Dixon showed his toughness after breaking the little finger on his left hand the Tuesday before the Sept. 9 game against Auburn. He had surgery Wednesday morning and didn't practice the rest of the week, but still went out that Saturday and ran 15 times for 69 yards.

This makes McCorvey chuckle. He appreciates the strength and passion that Velma Dixon instilled in Dixon and his four younger brothers.

Mississippi State signed Antwon Dixon in 2007 out of Terry (Miss.) High. Antwon, a 6-1, 200-pound safety, didn't qualify and instead went to Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss. In February, the Bulldogs signed safety Rashun Dixon. But Rashun was Mississippi's "Mr. Baseball," and he has signed with the Oakland Athletics after they drafted him in the 10th round in the recent draft. Deshaun is the youngest Dixon, a junior at Terry High who will be a I-A prospect and a likely Mississippi State recruiting target.

Mississippi State ended a postseason dry spell last season that stretched to 2000. Here's a look at the schools that have been at the I-A level since 1990 with bowl droughts of at least five years:
47 years: New Mexico State, 1960
37 years: Louisiana-Lafayette, 1970
35 years: Kent State, 1972
28 years: Temple, 1979
25 years: Vanderbilt, 1982
23 years: SMU, 1984
20 years: Eastern Michigan, 1987
13 years: Baylor, Duke, 1994
11 years: Army, 1996
10 years: Utah State, 1997
9 years: Arizona, Idaho, San Diego State, 1998
7 years: UNLV, 2000
6 years: Louisiana Tech, Stanford, 2001
5 years: Tulane, Washington, 2002
I-A newcomers that never been to a bowl: Buffalo, Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe
Anthony Dixon's role already is solidified. In two seasons in Starkville, he has established himself as one of the most punishing runners in the SEC. But knowing it's time to take the next step, Dixon is on campus working out, prepping for the season-opener at Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30. His goal: lose weight.

"He got too heavy last year," says McCorvey, who oversees a strong corps of runners that also includes Arnil Stallworth, Christian Ducre and exciting redshirt freshman Robert Elliott. "He was playing at over 240 pounds. We want him down under 230 this year. I saw him the other day, and he's looking good.

"He isn't a home-run hitter like (former Bulldogs star) Jerious Norwood. And I coached Jamal Lewis when he was at Tennessee. He was a big, 235-pound back like Anthony, but he could run a 4.3. Dixon isn't that fast. But if defenses stack the box with eight defenders, Anthony can go the distance if he breaks containment on that first wave of defenders. He's durable. He's there every game. You can count on him."

Now, it's time to become an elite back.

"Goals?" Dixon asks. "I'm still thinking about them for myself. We are getting better as a team. Our talent is improving. We want to win them all, if we can. That's every player's goal."

» MORE: Preseason Countdown: No. 48 Mississippi State | Rivals.com Preseason Countdown

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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