Shaping Up to Something Special?

SAN ANTONIO - When defensive end Marcus Dixon signed with the Dallas Cowboys a year ago, he thought he was in pretty good physical condition.

Head coach Wade Phillips didn't agree.

"Last year, he couldn't run a complete lap without having to stop," Phillips said Wednesday, "but he has worked very hard and made himself one of the most fit players on our team. I didn't think then that he had a chance to be an NFL player, but he's had one of the biggest improvements of anyone on our team."

Dixon acknowledge that he was heavier than he needed to be when he arrived last year, but said the extra bulk was a result of his misunderstanding of the role the Cowboys would ask him to play.

"I showed up heavy, because my whole thing was I was thinking about going to the 3-4, so I thought I had to be 300-plus pounds," he said, "(but I) realized you don't have to be that (heavy). So I was way overweight. It took me, like, to the middle of the season to actually get in shape. This year, I came back in January, and I'm in a whole lot better shape. When you're in college, you think you're in shape. But you get here — it's totally different."

Dixon's transformation to getting in shape took place while he was a member of the team's practice squad. But after the season was over, he took it upon himself to get ahead in preparation for the 2009 season. He went to (strength and conditioning coach) Joe Juraszek and altered his offseason regimen, changing up his workouts and his eating habits.

"(I'm) definitely eating different," Dixon said. "I came back in January and got with Joe Juraszek and basically just transformed my whole body. I had to get my core strong — that was the biggest thing, so I came in and did a lot of core work — a lot of extra running, and basically just working out with Joe has got me right. "I ate a lot of junk food before, but since I came in in January, I don't eat past 7:00 (p.m.), and I ate a lot of turkey, and a lot of healthy protein-type stuff, and a lot of wheat bread — a lot of fiber-type stuff. That's what got me right."

Dixon is about 15 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, but more than that, his body composition is completely different.

"I'm 285 now, but a healthy 285, and stronger — way stronger than I was. When I came back this year, I did 405 (pounds) on the incline (bench press). I used to bench press — regular bench press — 335, and incline is harder than regular bench press, and I did 405 on that, and I squatted 555 three times, and I'd never done that before, either."

Dixon credits the other members of the Dallas defensive line for getting him through the discouragement of being relegated to the practice squad, and for encouraging him to continue the overhaul of his physique.

"The D-line — they pushed me so much, and I love those guys to death," he said. "They're very easy to get along with and they're always coaching you up. That's one thing that helped me last year. Easily, I could have gotten down, being on the practice squad, but they kept me up. They kept my spirits up, and they told me I've got to be confident. So I came with that mindset in January. I said ‘I'm going to be confident, and I'm going to be an NFL player' … and here I am today."

That he is back in training camp with the Cowboys might be a surprise to Phillips, but not to Dixon, who said he never doubted he could make the changes in his lifestyle and his body to make it to the NFL.

"(There was) never (any doubt) — I know I'm going to be an NFL player," Dixon said. "Whatever somebody else says, that's what they say, but I'm going to work and I'm going to be an NFL player."

Now that his body has been overhauled, Dixon is trying to work his way into the team's defensive line rotation, and said he is helped by his ability to play on either end, and on his relatively new ability to play special teams.

"They want me to be versatile — play right and left (end)," he said. "The more you can do, the better off you are. That was the thing in college (at Hampton University in Virginia), they always had me play (alternating) with the right hand down and the left hand down, and that's really helping me out here. I think I can play both equally."

What Dixon didn't do at Hampton was play special teams — at all. The closest he ever has come was in high school, when he kicked for his team. But thanks in part to his time on the Dallas practice squad last year, and work he has done with new special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, he thinks he should be able to do enough on special teams to garner a spot on the final roster.

"None," Dixon said when asked how many special teams he played on at Hampton, "and now I'm on three here. On the practice squad, you've got to run special teams, and I think a lot of the coaches saw me do it then, and I guess maybe they put my name down on a list for this year. Coach Joe D — I got with him early, and now I'm working on punt team, kickoff return and punt return.

"What's going to help me a lot, is me doing special teams this year. You never know how things are going to turn out, but if I can get on special teams and on defensive line, then I should be good this year."

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