PITTSBURGH — For many NFL players, the path to the league is straight forward. Highly touted prospects coming out of high school, players attend big-time universities, play high-level college football, and get drafted in the league. Steelers players like Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris, Devin Bush, and even ones from less common situations like Canadian wide receiver and Chase Claypool fit that mold.
Others take longer to develop, going to lesser-known schools out of high school but taking advantage of that opportunity and maturing into NFL players along the way like Diontae Johnson, Alex Highsmith and Calvin Austin III.
Then there’s the path forged by Steelers rookie undrafted free agent Jake Dixon. Dixon wasn’t just a little-heralded prospect coming out of high school, he was barely even recruited as a football player. Coming out of Bethel Park in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, Dixon first joined Lewis University on a volleyball scholarship.
“He had a unique situation as he played football, basketball and volleyball at Bethel Park,” Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt said. “We recruited him, but he decided to take a Division I volleyball scholarship. We even heard that he was on track to qualify for the Olympics, so I understand the route he wanted to go. After a semester, he realized he wanted to play football.”
He moved back closer to home, and back to the gridiron, signing with Duquesne to play tight end. He worked his way into the starting lineup at that position, excelling as a blocker, With his 6-foot-6 frame, Dixon had the size and length to make the transition to offensive line, and he did just that in 2021.
“He came to play tight end and was about 220. He kept putting on weight and getting stronger. We needed a left tackle, and he made the transition, and he did really a good job,” Schmitt said.
He was named first team All-NEC in 2021 and racked up starts in all 12 games for Duquesne in his final season of college eligibility. Dixon wasn’t selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, and at 24 years old, is not only one of the oldest rookies on the team, he’s just two months younger than fellow Steelers tackle and fifth-year NFL veteran Chukwuma Okorafor.
But he has an opportunity that he is excited for as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers.
“I first talked to Dan Colbert the week of the draft,” Dixon said. “My agent called me and said the Steelers wanted to sign me. That’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I’m playing for the hometown team.”
It was not just the fact that Dixon gets the stay home that drew him to Pittsburgh, though. More than that, he was incredibly impressed by the organization. That was another factor that drew him right back to his hometown.
“This is the best organization in football,” Dixon said. “Just look at the way it’s run with its history. I’m just so excited to learn more and get going.”
The NFL representatives from those FCS squads have a special pressure placed on them. Being one of the few Duquesne representatives in the NFL, Dixon will feel some pressure to be the standard bearer for the Dukes program. But he has the good fortune of sharing a locker room with the only current NFL vet from Duquesne, Steelers long snapper Christian Kuntz.
“It’s awesome representing Duquesne,” Dixon said. “It’s a testament to my hard work and the work the guys up at Duquesne have put into me. We just had Cyrus Holder sign with the Bears, and Christian is on the roster here. It’s a smaller school but the work they put into the guys there speaks volumes.”
Dixon will now fight it out to try and potentially make the Steelers’ roster. His size, athleticism from playing volleyball and tight end and relatively short amount of time playing the tackle position makes Dixon a player with untapped potential despite his undrafted, FCS alumni status. On a Steelers roster ripe with opportunity at the offensive line position, Dixon could make some noise.
Chris Ward of Pittsburgh Sports Now contributed to this story.