KINGSTON, R.I. – It had been 21 years since Chris Hixson had last thrown a pass on the Rhode Island football practice fields, but this week the URI Hall of Famer was back on campus working with the team's quarterbacks in Spring Camp.
Hixson, who played from 1993-96, is Rhode Island's all-time leader in passing yards (8.407) and is second in touchdown passes (55), behind only the legendary Tom Ehrhardt. Hixson is the only quarterback in school history to complete 60 percent of his passes in multiple seasons, doing so in both 1993 and 1994.
In 2017, Hixson was inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame along with Dan Batz (baseball, '06), Antonio Reynolds-Dean (basketball, '99), Melanie Kasparek-Rainville (soccer, '05), Lauren (Maselli) Urban (volleyball, '98) and Jeffry Woods (track & field, '92). Returning to campus for the induction ceremony rekindled Hixson's love for the school.
"Life goes on and you don't really think about it, and then all of a sudden there is something that brings you back. For me, it was getting inducted into the Hall of Fame,'" Hixson said. "When that happened, I came back to campus, and it hit me like, 'Man, this place meant a lot to me.'
"I spent a lot of time out on this practice field, putting in work with the other guys on the team. Men who I call brothers. It makes you remember, 'This is my old home, my family.'"
Hixson – who runs a quarterback school in Atlanta, Ga. for high school and college players – also runs camps throughout the country. After his career at Rhode Island, he played five seasons professionally in the Arena Football League.
Over the last year, he has developed a relationship with the Rhode Island coaching staff and was welcomed to the first week of camp this spring.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for the guys on the team to learn from somebody who has been through what they are going through now," said Will Fleming, the team's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. "He has done what they are trying to do, and he did it at a very high level. It's another resource of knowledge, and to be able to share that knowledge with the current group of quarterbacks has been great."
Hixson likes what he sees out of redshirt seniors JaJuan Lawson and Tyler Harris, as well as redshirt sophomore Vito Priore and redshirt freshman Jakari Grant.
"They have put together a group of quarterbacks where any one of them is capable of doing the job," Hixson said. "From a personnel standpoint, with the group of linemen and the weapons at their disposal, this team has every single key piece to be awesome. From an offensive understanding, it seems like everyone is getting it. This is the quickest into any training camp that I have seen an offense be successful."
Hixson knows a thing or two about receiving threats. While at Rhode Island, he threw to the likes of Bobby Apgar, Cy Butler and Alonzo Boyd. Apgar and Butler both rank among Rhode Island's top 10 in career receptions and were part of the 2013 Fans' Choice Rhody Grand Team.
Asked to compare this year's corps of Marven Beauvais, Aaron Parker, Khayri Denny, Isaiah Coulter, Ivory Frimpong and others, Hixson offered strong praise.
"We had Bobby Apgar, Cy Butler and Alonzo Boyd," Hixson said. "We had a great crop of receivers when I was here, but I would have to say, pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, these guys now are better. Again, that's looking at the complete set of players. Bobby Apgar was unbelievable, and Cy Butler was our third-down for-sure guy, where it didn't matter where you threw it, he was going to catch it. But the total depth and size of this group is just really impressive."
The offense looks strong during Thursday's practice, the first full-pads session of the spring. During a brief scrimmage session, Lawson led a touchdown drive that culminated with a scoring pass to Denny, and Harris led a field goal drive, giving the offense 10 points in two possessions.
"After three days, they embraced the physical aspect of the game," Fleming said of the offensive unit. "That was encouraging. The receivers are doing a great job adjusting to (new wide receivers coach) Donovan Varner. This is the second time around for Tyler and JaJuan, who are really fine tuning what they are doing in the offense. Vito has done a great job, and Jakari has the redshirt off and is now really competing for the first time, and handling it very well."
"When I listen to Coach Will in the meetings, it is easy to see the strong knowledge base and the attention to detail," Hixson said. "I get to see a ton of programs around the country, and this is an unbelievable staff. I was surprised and very happy to see the level of coaching these players are getting. It's very impressive."
While Hixson will return home after the week, he plans to stay involved with the program.
"I am completely, 100 percent devoted to Rhode Island. I'm not sure that I realized how much I missed it all until I came back," Hixson said. "I am a phone call away. My door is completely open."