Football

Dixon emerges as reliable punter after walking on to team in 2011

Riley Dixon used to kick so much that his kicking coach in high school would take his cleats, tie them together and throw them in the garbage so Dixon’s right leg could get some rest.

“He’d always pull a joke and somehow get me to take my shoe off,” Dixon said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, those are nice cleats. Let me see those.’”

Dixon didn’t start punting until his junior year of high school at the nearby Christian Brothers Academy. After walking on to the Syracuse team in 2011, the 6-foot-5 Dixon was simply a reserve and barely saw the field. This year, though, thanks to a relentless routine and a newly adopted Australian-type punt, Dixon is SU’s starting punter.

He’s racked up more than 2,000 yards, averages more than 43 yards per punt and even unleashed a school-record 75-yarder against Clemson.

“Riley Dixon,” Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said. “Couldn’t be prouder of him.”

Dixon always practiced punting casually on the side. When he was 9 years old, he entered a kick-pass-punt competition, so he knew he had natural ability. He and his dad Tom always used to train in the driveway of their Blossvale, N.Y., home.

But at the start of Dixon’s high school career, he was a quarterback.

Then he bruised his ribs and sat out for a game. He stood on the sideline, itching to get back on the field. To try something new.

“I’ve got to do something,” he recalled thinking. “I’m kind of bored.”

So Dixon started kicking field goals in practice. He drilled 10-of-10 from 35-40 yards and became the team’s placekicker.

Eventually, starter Yosh Karbowniczak hurt his finger and couldn’t punt. The long snapper got hurt, too. The only other player on the team that could long snap was the other punter, so Dixon stepped in.

He emerged as a reliable punter, but never thought he would get a call from Syracuse. St. John Fisher University, University of Rochester and Saint Anselm College were his main options at the time. He wasn’t even sure how to go about the recruiting process. No one really told him what to do.

He didn’t have a recruiting page. There was no Riley Dixon highlight reel on YouTube. No phone calls came his way.

Finally, in December 2010, Dixon got that call. He didn’t have any contact with Syracuse beforehand, but the coaches encouraged him to apply.

Dixon walked on to Syracuse before the 2011 season.

Long snapper Sam Rodgers said it’s difficult to come in as a walk-on. Jonathan Fisher started all 13 games last season when Dixon was still a reserve.

“He hit good balls and felt like he was at the level that he could play,” Rodgers said, “but maybe got looked over a little bit.”

During the offseason, Dixon decided to adopt an Australian-type punt. Unlike a traditional punt that spins in a spiral, this punt flies backward, almost like a kickoff. It hits flat on your foot, Dixon said, and the follow-through makes the ball go further.

“It’s unique,” Dixon said. “I wouldn’t say it’s like anything else.”

Dixon watched NFL punters, including the New Orleans Saints’ Thomas Morstead, implement the Australian-type punt as it made its way into college football.

Now, just like in high school, Dixon’s coaches have to tell him to stop kicking. His teammates tease him that he has a rubber leg. Sometimes he racks up more than 70 punts per practice, which is actually frowned upon. The results have been bountiful, though.

“I’ve seen him hit some bombs,” Rodgers said.

After averaging just 36.3 yards per punt last year in limited action, Dixon is up to 43.1 yards per punt this year. Fisher averaged 38.4 yards last year and 39.1 this year before Dixon replaced him against Northwestern.

His highlight-reel punt finally came against Clemson. The ball hit the ground at the 30-yard line before taking a fortuitous bounce all the way down to the Tigers’ 8.

“I definitely caught hold of that one,” Dixon said.

He punted nine times that day and 11 against Wake Forest on Saturday. Twelve of his kicks have traveled more than 50 yards and 15 have entered the red zone.

After picking up the trade just a few years prior and standing on the sideline, Dixon has emerged as a steady punter for a team that punts more than it would like to.

“Some of these guys are punters their whole life and they kind of stay with it,” Dixon said. “It was definitely a strange journey.”

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