It’s rare for a player to enter the transfer portal and then end up returning to his original school.

But that’s the path Utah wide receiver Jaylen Dixon took — one that coach Kyle Whittingham called “a very unique situation.”

“I needed to hear that he was all-in and that he had gotten himself together and was in a good place from a mental standpoint.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

That unique path led the 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior from Frisco, Texas, to the end zone twice in last Saturday’s 42-16 thumping of Oregon State

Dixon scored a 19-yard touchdown on a diving catch just a few of minutes into the game and scored on a 22-yard reverse late in the third quarter. 

“It felt fun to be able to go out there,” he said. “Making the most of my chances. That’s been the biggest thing, not knowing how many chances I will get but being able to do the most with those chances … I just want to go out there and have fun.”

When Dixon crossed the goal line both times, his teammates erupted. 

“Look at the sideline. Obviously, you’re excited when your teammates score. But when he scores, it’s like a whole different deal. It’s like a party,” said receivers coach Chad Bumphis. “Everybody knows what he’s gone through and how much he’s battled back to be where he is. Just the support from the whole team, it’s fun to see.”

As No. 11 Utah visits No. 18 UCLA Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, Fox), Dixon is hoping to make more big plays.

Certainly, he has experienced his share of triumphs and trials with the Utes.

Dixon enrolled at Utah in 2017 and redshirted. In 2018, he started six games, catching 32 passes for 589 yards. In 2019, he had 24 receptions for 343 yards and rushed for 111 yards.

In October 2020, Dixon entered the transfer portal as he dealt with various off-field issues. At some point, during winter 2021, he realized that he wanted a second chance to play at Utah. 

To do so, he had a heartfelt conversation with Whittingham. 

“I needed to hear that he was all-in and that he had gotten himself together and was in a good place from a mental standpoint,” the coach recalled Monday. “It wasn’t just by default and that he had nothing else going.

“I needed to know that he sincerely and genuinely wanted to be part of this football team and be a guy that could be a great teammate and do whatever he’s asked to do and play his role to the utmost of his ability. That’s what he expressed to me.”

After talking to Dixon, Whittingham felt good about reinstating him to the team but he took it to the team’s leadership council and they felt the same way. 

“He was removed from the program, by his choice, to get some things straight in his personal life and health-wise,” Whittingham said. “He came back a few months later and said he was feeling better and wanted to become part of the team again. So we welcomed him back.”

That’s how Dixon received a second chance at Utah.

Dixon saw limited action last season and this year — until he had a breakout performance against OSU. 

For Bumphis, it was rewarding to watch Dixon make a big impact on the field.

“It’s rewarding. … To see everything he’s gone through and watch him come in here and compete every day and battle … JD’s a completely different person than he was last year,” Bumphis said. “I’ve known JD since I was a (grad assistant) here. I saw him as a freshman.

“This year, he’s completely different. He’s more of a leader. In the meeting room, his conversations are different. Everything you want from a senior is what we’re getting from him and we’re a better group because of it.”

Running back Micah Bernard has also noticed the growth in Dixon. 

“You can see in practice that the person he is has changed,” he said. “It’s just amazing how he can just keep working at it and become a better person and a better football player. You see that.”

“I know it’s been a bumpy road for him to get to this point. To see him get this success, it’s made the whole team happy. I was happy,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “When I called that play (the reverse), I told him to go score a touchdown. He went and handled the rest. He’s a phenomenal player and a phenomenal person. I love having him as a teammate.”

Dixon is glad to be back in the program, and contributing. He’s not dwelling on the past but savoring his opportunities in the present. 

Utah’s Jaylen Dixon gets a first down during game against San Diego State in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“It hasn’t been too tough. There’s been certain things that seem worse than they really are,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed being here and being around these guys. The day-to-day prep for the games and the grind and the dog days of fall camp, it’s all great to me. Just being able to be back with these guys and knowing that I’m having fun again is the most important thing.”

A week before Dixon’s emergence, Utah lost star tight end Brant Kuithe with a season-ending injury. The Utes were looking for others to step up and fill that void. Dixon was one of them. 

“It definitely sucks the way it had to come but I’m glad that I was able to get those chances and make the most of them,” Dixon said. “Going into the week, knowing that I would get those chances, you kind of had a different mindset. … Knowing that you’re going to get more looks than you usually do definitely helps.”

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Wide receiver Devaughn Vele was thrilled about Dixon’s performance on Saturday. 

“I’m his biggest fan. JD’s been working his butt off. You see that at practice every day. He’s always giving everything he’s got,” he said. “I told him before the game, ‘This is your game. This is your opportunity to make plays.’ He made the most of it and I was so excited for him.

“He’s been a part of this offense for a long time. He’s actually one of the guys I look up to as a veteran leader. Seeing him get the publicity and success that he’s worked so hard for, it’s a blessing to see.”

Vele added that he knew that Dixon was due to make an impact. 

“It was just a matter of time for him to get his moment to shine. I was the happiest dude out there seeing him score two times. Not just once, but twice. It’s great to see it and I know we’ll be giving him the rock more. He’s going to be one of those guys we’ve got to depend on.

“We’ve got a lot riding on him but the offense as a whole, everybody’s got to step up. Sometimes it’s going to be him and sometimes it’s going to be Money (Parks). What makes this offense so special — we have a bunch of guys that can step up.”

Whittingham has enjoyed witnessing Dixon’s perseverance.

“He had some bumps in the road a few years ago and we lost him for a period of time and he came back and we’re very glad he did,” he said. “He’s contributing for us very well.”

Yes, the Utes are happy that Dixon is back. His performance last week was gratifying for the program. 

“It was amazing because I’ve been here just as long as he has. I’ve seen him go through the ups and the downs,” Bernard said. “Just to see him get some shine, it makes you happy because JD’s a great guy. You want to see the best for him.”

Utes on the air

No. 11 Utah (4-1, 2-0) at No. 18 UCLA (5-0, 2-0) 

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Rose Bowl 

Pasadena, California

TV: Fox

Radio: ESPN 700