Nixon finds home as pass rusher in Gophers ‘D’

by Brian Stensaas

Torn between whether to stay in the vicinity of his home in Ohio or to venture out of the region, Minnesota defensive end Paul Nixon’s mom ultimately gave him an order only a mother can get away with.

“Mom told me to get out of the area,” Nixon said, flashing a smile. “She said it would be good to get out, and I wanted to do that.”

And get out he did, but it’s been a long road from Columbus. Becoming a staple on the Gophers’ defensive line didn’t happen overnight nor did the position come Nixon’s way as expected.

Nixon came to Minnesota prior to the 1999 season, turning down schools in the ACC and the Big Ten who had recruited him. He came to the Gophers fresh off a prep career that included time at linebacker and defensive end, where he was a standout at Mifflin High School, recording 82 solo tackles as a senior.

After redshirting his first season for the Gophers, Nixon did not participate in a single play of game action during his second year. All the while he was being moved around in practice by the coaching staff like a Monopoly game piece.

“I’ve played all sorts of positions here,” said Nixon, who has seen drills at corner, safety, linebacker and now defensive end. “But it helps me to understand the defense more. I really feel that any way I am on the field, I’ll help the team. I’ll always do it.”

He finally got his chance to prove himself somewhere other than the Bierman indoor practice facility last season when he played in nine games, starting at linebacker against Illinois. He earned his first letter chipping in with 13 tackles and seeing extensive time on special teams.

This season Nixon has come on strong, starting all but three games at defensive end along with redshirt freshman Mark Losli. Nixon is second on the team with five sacks. Three of those sacks came last weekend in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in the Gophers’ 34-3 loss to Ohio State.

He couldn’t think of a better homecoming, and the coaches were proud of the effort despite the loss.

“Nixon gets a lot of sacks because he keeps coming,” Minnesota defensive coordinator Moe Ankney said. “It’s not like he has a free pass to the quarterback. He gets blocks and gets pushed around, but he just keeps coming. He’s relentless, and that’s why he gets them.”

At 6-foot-1, 221 pounds, Nixon isn’t your biggest defensive lineman. Often, he is matched with offensive players over 100 pounds heavier.

However, his smaller frame allows Nixon – who often lines up on the weak side – to reach the quarterback faster.

Nixon’s efforts have improved the pass rush this season. Heading into this weekend’s tilt with No. 13 Michigan, the Gophers have 27 sacks, 13 more than the team had all of last season.

The Wolverines are a team not getting it done on the ground this season, third to last in the conference, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. They have allowed 18 sacks, and with Nixon’s energy leading the charge, Minnesota is primed and ready to make the number rise.

“When 11 guys are flying to the ball, good things are going to happen,” Losli said of his teammates. “(Nixon) has found his home on the defensive line and probably knows the defense a little better than some of us because he’s moved around a lot. He’s nice and quick and gets the pressure on the quarterback.”

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]