IRVING, Texas — Skip Holtz is glad to have junior running back Kenneth Dixon, who missed three games last season with a knee injury, healthy for 2014. But the second-year Louisiana Tech coach would like to find more innovative ways to use Dixon, who rushed for 917 yards last season, within his offense.

“We’ve got to get him more involved in the passing game, and we’ve got to build some more in our running game,” Holtz said Wednesday during the Conference USA media day. “I think we’ve got to get more imaginative in what we’re trying to do, because we’re certainly not in a position where talentwise we can just run the inside zone and go up and down the field. We can’t let defenses know what we’re doing.”

Last season, Dixon ran for at least 100 yards in five of the 10 games he played. He’s a running back who is definitely not afraid of contact and can run up the middle, but he also can find running lanes on either side of the line.

His approach is simple yet adaptable, which has served him and the Bulldogs well.

“I kind of do what the defense gives me,” Dixon said. “If they give me a straight ahead run, I’m going to take it. If they give me a run where I have to make somebody miss, I can do that also.”

Holtz spent much of last year learning about his players, where their strengths and weaknesses are and what sort of leadership they provide. And even though he didn’t know much about Dixon before his hiring, it’s clear just how much respect Holtz has for what his top tailback did last season.

“I think it was a frustrating year for Kenneth. I think Kenneth grew an awful lot as a young man and as a football player,” Holtz said. “He understands how important his leadership role is and that quarterback is and our passing game is. And I also think that we can do a better job of utilizing him rather than always just putting him right next to the quarterback and saying you’re always going to know where Kenneth Dixon is.”

Holtz was also impressed with the maturity Dixon displayed by leading his teammates from the sidelines while injured. But the ultimate statement about how mature this Doak Walker Award candidate is might lie in why he’d like to see Tech reach their first bowl game since 2011.

“It would mean a lot for me to get to a bowl game for my first time, just to experience being at a bowl, just to get Louisiana Tech back,” Dixon said. “I feel like I would be happier just to get us back there (more) than (just for myself).”

Positive changes for Johnson

Senior linebacker Tony Johnson, who appeared in 12 games last season, his first in Ruston after transferring from Southwest Mississippi Community College, is expecting big changes in 2014, and they will be positive. Johnson, who made two starts in 2013, hopes to be a full-time starter as a senior.

And after splitting time last year between linebacker and fullback, he will now play only on defense.

“I played a couple games at fullback, and it was a good experience. I liked it. I was on the field, so I couldn’t much complain. But that’s what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I wanted to play college football. I was doing what I came here to do.”

Over the past year, he also has developed a healthy respect for every member of C-USA, a league he said Tech could definitely contend in.

“It’s a good conference. You’ve got a lot of competition in there,” Johnson said. “Everybody has great players. We’re all chasing the same thing, and the best team will win.”