“I was hoping for this because I’m a 49er fan with Jerry Rice (another Mississippi native) and those guys,” the cheerful rookie said during his introductory conference call, adding, “This is my favorite team, ask anybody and they’ll tell you that. I’m so happy right now, I don’t know what to do.”
That surprise was only the tip of the iceberg with Dixon. Perhaps a bigger one is that despite being the leading rusher in the SEC, only the most competitive conference in college football, he still fell all the way to the sixth round.
On the surface, it just makes no sense, right? Here’s a powerful back who ran for a school-record 1,391 yards last season, playing for an offense where opponents knew he was the first, second and third option on an undermanned team, and the most physical defenses in the country still couldn’t stop him. Dixon finished as the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in rushing yards (3,994), touchdowns (42) and showed enough versatility to snag 56 receptions for 449 yards and four more scores as a receiver over his career as well. How’d a guy like that last so long?
Well, the scouts say he isn’t fast enough to get around the edge or explosive enough through the hole. They say his running style is too upright and that his tendency to fight for every inch actually hurts him, because of his propensity to fumble during gang tackles. Dixon is determined to prove his critics wrong and was already working on running lower, with more forward body lean during his first rookie camp.
One thing’s for sure, and that’s Dixon won’t be some big-headed, entitled rookie, bitter that he wasn’t picked higher and expecting the NFL to owe him a living. “I grew up with my four brothers and my mom,” he explained. “We struggled a lot and we went homeless twice and it’s been an uphill fight ever since. Ever since I was 10 or 11, I’ve been fighting and trying to provide for my family and I guess it’s finally coming true. I’ve been in Mississippi my whole life, so California will be a nice switch. If I didn’t show anyone that I have first round talent, then I’m sure going to try my dangest to play like that when I get there.”
Head coach Mike Singletary certainly sounded as though he’d be open to using Dixon in some fashion right away. “I’m very excited to get him where we got him,” he said. “He’s a big back. He’s a guy that’s got great feet, great quickness. When you’re trying to close out a game, that’s the kind of guy you want in the fourth quarter.”
If Dixon does indeed find himself as part of a three-pronged attack at running back, he likely won’t have too much trouble establishing chemistry and friendships with Frank Gore and Glen Coffee – two guys he’s seen for years on television. “I watch and study these guys, every time they’re on TV I try my best to watch them. I’ve been preaching the 49ers to my friends for years, now to play with them, it’s a dream come true.”
It’s no dream, Dixon’s earned this. Now his job is to show the next generation of Mississippi kids what the Niners are all about. Like Singletary says, “Don’t tell me, show me.”
Byham Brings Physical Attitude To “Pittsburgh West”
Nate Byham is not one of those people who harbors any illusions of grandeur. As a 6th-round pick, the 182nd overall, he knows he was brought here for one reason, and one reason only – to block. And that suit’s his mentality just fine.
“I like to bloody noses,” he told the media while introducing himself. “I don't shy away from contact, I'm going into the hole and I'm looking to hit somebody. I think that's what makes me unique. There's not too many tight ends these days that want to go in there and try to hurt somebody. I'm trying to inflict pain.”
In a draft class filled with all-catch, no-block types such as Florida’s Aaron Hernandez and BYU’s Dennis Pitta, Byham was the rare tight end prospect who is a blocker first and a receiver second. At 6'4, 268 pounds, he better be. “It's something I pride myself on,” he explained. “I've had coaches my whole life, like Dave Wannstedt [at the University of Pittsburgh], who like to play old-school, hard-nose football.”
As a former Panther, Byham should feel right at home playing alongside friends and fellow alums like linebacker Scott McKillop, corner Shantae Spencer and punter Andy Lee. “I was golfing with Scott last week and I lifted weights with Shantae three days ago,” he told reporters during his conference call. “They said I'm going into a great system with a great coaching staff. I'm so happy to be a part of that program.”
Like fellow rookie Anthony Dixon, Byham also had to deal with a less-than-idyllic childhood, and was raised by his grandfather. “I've never met my father and my mom has had a lot of drug and alcohol issues and a lot of personal issues throughout my life,” he revealed. “I've been in and out of a lot of houses and a lot of close friends have helped me out. I've always been with my grandfather and he's been a rock and taken care of me.”
Byham is looking to repay his grandfather with a long, successful career in the league as a second or third tight end. The scouting report on him is what we would expect. While he’s a devastating blocker, he’s slow off his release and not particularly adapt as a route runner. When he does get open, he exhibits good hands, and caught 20 passes as a junior at Pitt. Singletary envisions a variety of roles for him, and said that “[Byham] can give us some flexibility as an H-back, he can line up and play fullback and go downhill and dig out a linebacker.”
With Byham on board, perhaps more than a couple of linebackers will be digging their mouthpieces out of the dirt as well.