How Penn State landed elite CB Daryus Dixson from California powerhouse Mater Dei

The Mater Dei coaching staff was curious how its newest player would mesh with teammates on the practice field this spring.

Wide receiver Chris Henry Jr., a five-star prospect in the 2026 class, is considered by many to be the top player in the country. Henry moved from Cincinnati to Southern California to join the powerhouse football program this spring. The son of the late Bengals wide receiver has been committed to Ohio State since July.

“We practice hard and sometimes guys go to the ground and get tangled up and it gets chippy,” said Jason David, Mater Dei’s defensive backs coach. “I was like, ‘Is he gonna back down? Is he gonna be a little nervous?’”

Henry, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 205 pounds, didn’t back down. Neither did Mater Dei’s defensive backs.

“You gotta fight fire with fire to get better,” said Dominic Sesay, Mater Dei’s co-defensive coordinator. “He brings a different dimension to the game being so big. … When these guys get to college they’ll be used to guarding bigger receivers.”

What the staff couldn’t have predicted in the spring was that the one-on-one matchups between Henry and 2025 cornerback Daryus Dixson — battles they’ll continue to observe this summer and fall — could also provide a glimpse of what’s to come in a few years in the Big Ten.

Dixson, a four-star prospect who is ranked No. 90 in the 247Sports Composite, announced his commitment to Penn State on Monday. He went public with his pledge after visiting State College over the weekend. He’s the 14th player in the class and the highest-ranked in the group, edging out running back Alvin Henderson, an Alabama native who is ranked No. 113.

“They go at it every day and it’s all love afterward,” David said. “I’ve seen Chris line up for one-on-ones and he’s like, ‘No, I wanna go against Daryus’ and vice versa. The competition level is crazy. I can’t even lie and be like, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ These guys are so good.”

David, a former cornerback who played at Washington State and was a fourth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2004, knows how valuable it is to line up against elite wide receivers in practice. As a player, he had the unenviable task of figuring out how to slow down Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Dixson and classmate Chuck McDonald, a four-star cornerback who is committed to Alabama, are gaining valuable experience working against and learning from one of the most high-powered high school offenses in the country.

Mater Dei quarterback Dash Beierly is committed to Washington. Running back Jordon Davison and wide receiver Marcus Harris are uncommitted four-stars in the 2025 cycle. Add in Henry and 2026 wide receiver Kayden Dixon-Wyatt — ranked No. 182 nationally — and Dixson should arrive at Penn State in January as one of the most prepared signees of the James Franklin era.

“They’re covering some of the best receivers in the country on their own team every day,” David said.

So how did Penn State secure a commitment from an elite cornerback from a powerhouse program on the other side of the country? It’s no easy feat, especially considering the program hasn’t signed a player from California out of high school since 2014 when safety-turned-linebacker Koa Farmer was part of Franklin’s first class at Penn State. Kicker Chase Meyer, who transferred to Penn State from Tulsa this winter, played at Mater Dei. He’s the only player from California on the roster.

Mater Dei’s coaches expected Dixson, like most high-level 2025 prospects, to decide on a college before the upcoming season. When he started asking the coaches more about Penn State, and Pennsylvania in general, Sesay thought maybe Dixson had found his fit. Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who continues to bolster the program’s recruiting efforts in California, had previously visited Dixson at Mater Dei.

While an expanded Big Ten could help — with Penn State playing at USC this fall and UCLA coming to Beaver Stadium in October — Smith has noted that the staff will continue to prioritize the program’s traditional recruiting footprint while looking to supplement classes with top players regardless of location. Penn State has had success attracting and developing cornerbacks, both out of high school and the transfer portal.

“With social media and stuff you see the White Out games,” Sesay said. “Even being from California, you know the rich tradition that Penn State has. Obviously, they get guys to the next level, graduate guys. There’s big-time, consistent football that is being played there.”

Because Dixson is an integral part of a high school team that should be one of the best in the nation, Penn State’s coaches should have fewer questions about what they’re actually getting in the 6-foot, 180-pound corner. Dixson even moved around at points last season, showcasing his versatility depending on the game plan. He’d line up alongside cornerback Zabien Brown, a four-year starter at Mater Dei who enrolled at Alabama in January. Opposing offenses weren’t keen on targeting Brown, which put Dixson under the microscope.

“He’s an elite competitor as far as mindset, and as far as skills, he’s ball savvy,” Sesay said. “The biggest thing you look for in DBs is just having a feel for the game. He wants to make every play and he wants to be a physical tackler. He does it at a consistent level and you just know that second- or third-down play, Daryus is gonna make that play.”

The coaches mentioned two plays that displayed Dixson’s diverse skill set. One was an acrobatic interception where Dixson tracked the ball, high-pointed it and came down with his feet in bounds.

“You never wanna get too excited, but when I saw that I was like that is a really good play and he’s gonna be special,” David said.

The other play occurred against rival St. John Bosco and showed just how willing Dixson was to make a tackle. With a ball carrier coming at him, he fit the run much like a linebacker would right at the line of scrimmage.

“Daryus is a willing tackler, and at that position, it’s super vital as you get to the next level because they are gonna catch the ball on you and there will be runs that can get outside where you have to make a tackle,” David said. “Watching him doing all those things last year was really exciting, and I know he’s gonna have another fantastic year.”

(Photo: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

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