Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon is unimpressed with his own pursuit of the NCAA record for career touchdowns.
That’s an individual statistic, and he’s all about team accomplishments.
Two scores shy of Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds’ mark of 85 set this season, he doesn’t care if he reaches the end zone in the New Orleans Bowl as long as the Bulldogs finish with more points than Arkansas State.
The teams meet at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with Louisiana Tech (8-4) of Conference USA looking to atone for a regular season-ending blowout loss to Southern Miss and Sun Belt champion Arkansas State (9-3) trying to extend its winning streak to nine.
“I don’t feel like they help my team win because, at the end of the day, anybody can score a touchdown,” Dixon said. “I’m thankful that Louisiana Tech keeps helping me get all those touchdowns.”
Dixon’s humility belies huge productivity that has taken him a long way. Already Louisiana Tech’s career rushing leader before his senior year, he needs only 32 yards against Arkansas State to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in four seasons. A 122-yard day will give him 4,500, a remarkable number for a 5-foot-10, 213-pound achiever who won’t wow you with speed or strength.
His greatest attribute is will power. Skip Holtz learned that quickly when he watched the video of Dixon’s freshman year after replacing Sonny Dykes as Louisiana Tech’s coach.
Before then, Holtz knew Dixon only as the soft-spoken player who was in the coaches’ offices constantly.
“He was such a great young man; mild-mannered in how he handled himself,” Holtz said. “Then you put on the film and you went, ‘Holy smokes; that’s not the same guy.’ He’s angry and physical in the way he plays the game.”
That physicality was taken away from him for a while when he sprained an ankle against Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 3.
The injury forced him to miss two games, and he was not the same when he returned, gaining 100 yards only once in his final five games while being held to 35 yards on 27 attempts against UTEP and Southern Miss to close the regular season.
The three-week gap between the USM loss and the New Orleans Bowl should make a world of difference.
“He probably should have missed four or five games, but he’s one of those guys who wants to keep playing,” Holtz said. “We’d tell (running backs coach) Jabbar Juluke to rest him and take him off the field, and the next play he’d be back in there. There’s nothing that can stop him from getting on the field.”
The funny thing is Dixon, an Arkansas native, could have ended up on the opposite side of the field for the New Orleans Bowl. After committing to play in Ruston, he took one final official visit to Arkansas State and liked what then-coach Gus Malzahn was selling.
Ultimately, though, he stuck with his gut. His tiny hometown of Strong (population: less than 1,000) near the Arkansas/Louisiana border was significantly closer to Ruston than to Jonesboro. He also liked the small-town feel of Ruston, which has less than a third of the population of Jonesboro.
“I was torn, and I almost bought into (Arkansas State),” he said. “It was a very tough decision, but I had never been in a big town before.”
Dykes and Malzahn, the two coaches competing for him, were gone by the end of his freshman year. Holtz was thrilled to inherit him, and Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who arrived in 2013, can only play a game of what-if.
Arkansas State hardly is hurting for running backs, ranking 14th nationally in rushing and boasting 1,000-yard gainer Michael Gordon, but Anderson can dream.
“I know I’d love to have (Dixon) and Gordon as a one-two punch,” he said. “They’d be just about as good a duo as there is in the country.”
Holtz, who has coached future NFL stars Chris Johnson at East Carolina, Ricky Watters at Note Dame and Sammie Smith at Florida State, said Dixon measures up to all of them in passion and attitude. He’s already a legend in Strong, where he set an Arkansas high school career rushing record that was broken a few weeks ago, and he’s expecting about 100 family members and friends to come to the Superdome for his final game.
If he scores a few touchdowns against Arkansas State, he could go down in NCAA history, too — or at least put pressure on Reynolds, who also has a bowl game to play.
Either way, it won’t change his demeanor.
“It’s not about records; it’s not about touchdowns,” Holtz said. “We threw the ball to (wide receiver) Trent Taylor (for a touchdown against Southern Miss), and the first guy there to meet him was Kenneth Dixon. He was running off the field, jumping up and kicking his heels together.
“He’s got a youthful innocence when he plays the game.”