Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon is proving he deserves a place among the big boys _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD – Former college coach Lou Holtz, father of Louisiana Tech Bulldogs head coach Skip Holtz, helps Louisiana Tech Bulldogs running back Kenneth Dixon put on his championship T-shirt after the Bulldogs beat the Arkansas State Red Wolves 47-28 Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, during the New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

INDIANAPOLIS — Until now, Kenneth Dixon has rarely been in the spotlight.

Dixon grew up in Strong, Arkansas, a town with a population of just 558 people, according to the 2010 census. Despite a prolific high school career that included a 3,000-yard season, Dixon signed early with Louisiana Tech, generating only late interest from his big home-state school, Arkansas.

And once he got to Louisiana Tech, Dixon never got the accolades of an Ezekiel Elliott, a Derrick Henry or other power-conference backs — even though he rushed for more than 4,000 yards and dueled Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds for the NCAA’s career touchdown record.

Dixon took his place on the Lucas Oil Stadium field this week as one of the best running backs in the 2016 class, a notch below players like Elliott and Henry, and backed it up by being one of only three running backs to break the 7-second mark in the three-cone drill, placing fourth at the NFL combine with a vertical leap of 37.5 inches, and putting up a solid 4.58-second 40-yard dash.

“The dreams of me coming here have been all the way since I played in third grade,” Dixon said. “It’s been remarkable to see me go up at the Senior Bowl and play with some of those guys with the bigger logos on their helmets. You know, coming from a small school, nobody ever thought that I could make it this far. Going to Louisiana Tech, just trying to display my skills and be the best I can be.”

Offered an opportunity to go up against some of the better-known backs at the Senior Bowl, Dixon impressed as a versatile runner and receiver who looked ready to handle all three downs in the NFL right away.

A back from a small school has to prove he can handle the competition, no matter if he was able to rush for 4,483 yards in college, as Dixon did, or pile up 87 touchdowns.

NFL teams want to see a player who isn’t afraid.

“They have to have a swagger about them to be able to come into a locker room of SEC guys and other guys with a chip on their shoulder,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You want that chip on their shoulder, because that’s usually the thing that gets them through. They’re trying to prove it every single day. Some of them keep it of five or six years, and that’s how they make it.”

Dixon proved he had plenty of heart at the Senior Bowl, displaying the kind of all-around talent that could make him a starter for the right team in the NFL.

Compactly built and sturdy at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, Dixon has the balance and power to be a tough inside runner, but he’s also a natural receiver, capable of leaving linebackers and safeties in the dust and getting free for passes out of the backfield.

Dixon is also tough enough to handle the pounding an NFL running back has to take.

While he chased the NCAA’s touchdowns record, Dixon was battling an injury.

“I just can’t say enough positive things about Kenneth Dixon,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “He hurt his ankle about halfway through the season and kind of played on one leg.”

After the Senior Bowl, Dixon started earning comparisons to another all-around back from a small school. Marshall Faulk, one of the most prolific running and receiving threats in NFL history, dominated at San Diego State before becoming a star in Indianapolis and St. Louis.

“I used to watch Marshall Faulk a lot,” Dixon said. “I’m nothing compared to Marshall Faulk. Marshall Faulk is in the Hall of Fame; he’s one of the greats. I’m just trying to follow the path that he did. People always compare me to Marshall Faulk. He’s a great guy, but another thing: He was a great receiver out of the backfield. I think that’s why they compare me to him.”

Dixon’s NFL career is only at the beginning.

But it seems he’ll never be far from the limelight again.