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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

You'll notice something endearing about Breon Dixon when he steps on a football field.

He bounces. He has fun. He smiles.

“It’s the energy — he has a lot of it,” says former Nebraska linebacker Eric Johnson, who trains athletes for Victory Impact Performance in suburban Atlanta.

He trained Dixon as the first-year Husker outside linebacker grew up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, a hotbed of talent.

Johnson, who made 70 tackles for the Blackshirts in 1998, also has helped train Nebraska inside linebacker Mohamed Barry. Johnson swears the three must be related (although they’re really not). All three bounce off walls, smile a lot and share a passion for football.

I’ll always remember that about Johnson, who recorded 13 sacks from 1997-99 and went on to play five-plus seasons in the NFL.

He said Barry, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior, was one of the main reasons Dixon ended up at Nebraska in January as a transfer from Ole Miss.

“You’re going to see high energy from both of them,” Johnson said. “You’re going to see them get the crowd into the game. They have what we had at Nebraska back. …”

This is where I’ll stop Johnson’s roll for a moment. After all, Nebraska’s defense ranked 100th nationally last season, surrendering 436.2 yards per game, as the team finished 4-8. Barry played in all 12 games and started twice. He made 38 tackles and came out of this spring as one of the Huskers’ top three inside backers.

When Barry received his Blackshirt last August, one of his first calls went to Johnson.

Johnson expects to receive the same call from Dixon this coming season.

“They know what it means to be a Blackshirt,” Johnson insists.

They want to improve, and they want to help others improve as well.

You’ll see no selfishness from the duo, and plenty of humility, Johnson said.

“They’re hungry,” the ex-Husker said. “They live and breathe football.”

Last week, when Dixon learned he would be eligible this season, it seemed to pump energy into the program and its fan base.

After all, the former consensus four-star recruit looked good in the Red-White Spring Game last month, recording eight tackles, including two for losses.

“He’s one of those guys who can come in and have an immediate impact,” Johnson said. “If anything, start him out on special teams. Get him in there blocking field goals. Start getting his feet wet. Then start rolling him into the defense. He’ll make plays. Wherever Breon’s been, he’s always made plays.”

Johnson has known Dixon since he was in grade school. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Dixon was part of what Johnson describes as “that Gwinnett County football circle.” Johnson has trained a slew of players from the area, including several NFL players, most notably cornerback Josh Norman. He’s been training Norman for years.

“Breon's mom is like a sister to me, I know his dad — everybody,” Johnson said.

“Breon used to play basketball,” he added. “Always had good jumping ability. Good shooter. And he was dunking in the seventh grade.”

He wasn’t even 5-foot-10.

“That’s just his athletic ability,” Johnson said.

“Think about it,” he added. “Breon played varsity in high school when he was a freshman. He was considered undersized. But you started seeing him make interceptions and cause fumbles. He’s a playmaker. You’d see him block punts and block kicks.”

Dixon began his high school career at Peachtree Ridge High School. After his family moved to Grayson, Dixon finished his career at Grayson High, Barry’s alma mater.

“Both of my guys have always won,” Johnson said.

Johnson also is excited about Barry’s progress. Johnson’s excited about the program, period. He watched UCF’s rise under Scott Frost. He played with Frost at Nebraska. He knows firsthand Frost’s resilience and leadership ability. Johnson saw it during that scorching September night in 1996 at Arizona State, where Frost was the quarterback in the Huskers’ 19-0 loss.

“Scott came into the locker room crying,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘Guys, we’re not losing anymore.’”

Frost was 23-1 from that point.

So, yeah, Johnson is a believer — in both the program and his two pupils.

“I think Mohamed’s a little more physical than Breon,” he said. “But both of those guys are going to be at the ball. The more you watch those guys, the more you’ll see they have ultimate hustle — they’re not going to get tired. They’re going to make plays, and they’re good guys in the community and good leaders.

“When they start playing good, they bring guys up around them. Guys play better around those type of guys.”

After last season’s misery, Nebraska fans certainly hope that’s the case.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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