SANTA CLARA Anthony Dixon wants to make one thing clear: The big tailback doesn't tap dance at the line of scrimmage because he's afraid of contact.
It's just that he's been a bit overeager in the past.
"My mentality was, I'm going to get the ball, and whoever's in my way, I'm going to run them over. Or I'm going to stiff-arm them. Or I'm going to make my own hole," Dixon said. "And that was me being young. I just wanted to make plays. I never wanted to wait on the blocking."
As a result, Dixon usually arrived at the line of scrimmage before the hole opened, which caused him to hesitate or "dance" before making his move. It has been the biggest criticism of Dixon in his first two seasons and one he's determined to shed in Year 3.
Perhaps no 49er goes into tonight's exhibition season opener against the Minnesota Vikings with more on the line. Dixon's been the team's No. 3 tailback the past two seasons, but this year he finds himself in a crowded backfield that added one well-known tailback in free agency, Brandon Jacobs, and used a second-round draft pick on another, LaMichael James.
He also has failed to build on a promising exhibition season his rookie year in 2010 that ended with him leading the league in rushing yards. Dixon averaged 4.1 yards per carry in the four games that year, including a 46-yard touchdown run.
He hasn't done nearly as well against starting-caliber defenses. He averaged three yards a carry last season, and on his most memorable run a third-and-one carry in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game he was stopped for no gain.
Dixon said he received the offseason message loud and clear.
During the spring, he cleaned up his diet by eliminating the fried foods and late-night snacks on which he subsisted at Mississippi State. Now he eats salads and cooks his food inside the oven.
"Baked fish, baked chicken everything baked," he said. "I stay away from the pasta, too."
He also approached coach Jim Harbaugh and told him he wanted to test his 235-pound body as a fullback, something he's done in recent practices and a position Harbaugh said Dixon would play in today's game.
Asked if Dixon also would play tailback, Harbaugh said, "Most probably, yes.
"He's doing a fine job, and there's a lot of carryover from halfback to fullback," Harbaugh said Thursday. "It would be great to see him in that role (tonight). That's one of those individuals that you look forward to watching him play. Excited for him to compete."
Most of all, Dixon is training himself to slow down.
The 24-year-old running back is one of the most charismatic, likeable and above all energetic players on the team. But he realized his enthusiasm often worked against him in the 49ers' backfield.
The refrain from running backs coach Tom Rathman this year has been "tempo it down, tempo it down."
"Because sometimes when I get out there in a game, I'd get excited, you know?" Dixon said. "And when I get down there in that stance, I'd get so tense and I'd just burst out."
But if Dixon has one message for Rathman, Harbaugh and the rest of the coaches, it's that he now knows how to relax.
"That was one of my biggest issues and something I've learned to do and that's slow my first step down," he said. "That's me this year. That's me now. That other guy? He doesn't exist anymore."