Two weeks ago, second-year running back Joe McKnight was being held out of practice following a concussion he suffered in the preseason opening loss in Houston. There was McKnight in his shorts and T-shirt, having observed the morning walkthrough session from the sideline, now sprinting at full speed across one of the practice fields at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. No coaches were around and his teammates were all heading into the locker room after the low-key morning session.
Practice was over for some, but not McKnight, who was sweating, hands on his hips after a 40-yard burst, walking back to the end zone to do it all over again. No one was forcing him to sprint, but there was McKnight in the heat of a 92-degree day with humidity that could be cut with a knife, ready to sprint again.
For anyone who remembered last April, it has been an amazing transformation for the player.
Days after the NFL Draft, McKnight was a bit of a laughingstock with Jets fans. He reported to rookie camp out of shape and was unable to fully participate in drills. At one point, McKnight had to throw-up, such was his lack of conditioning.
“I wanted to come into camp in better shape this year and I feel stronger, feel better this year. I knew what to expect and what I needed to do to get ready for here,” McKnight told Metro. “Last year, I didn’t know but this year, I came in more ready for it, better conditioned for camp and being ready to compete.”
Last year was a bit of a disappointment for McKnight, who was at one point in his college career touted as a potential Heisman candidate before having a disappointing 2009 season at USC. McKnight always seemed plagued by injuries and mired in a deep USC backfield. During his rookie season with the Jets, he played in just nine games, stockpiling 39 carries for 189 yards.
The Jets preached patience last year with McKnight and there was no denying his talent. Nearly all draft experts acknowledge that McKnight had first-round talent despite the risk surrounding his chronic injuries and fumbles that forever plagued him.
Now that all seems a distant memory.
The major reason for the intrigue around McKnight centers on his athleticism. In high school, he was being recruited as both a defensive back and a running back, but when he arrived at USC head coach Pete Carroll told McKnight he was going to focus solely on offense. Jets head coach Rex Ryan teased last year, as part of the scout team, McKnight was impressive as a safety and that the then-rookie could make a move to defense.
It might have been idle talk from Ryan, but don’t get his hopes up.
“I just like to play. I told coach Carroll that I would play defense if he wanted me to and running back and special teams. I’ve told coach Ryan the same thing,” McKnight said. “I like the challenge, I enjoy playing both sides of the ball but I don’t think it will happen right now. But if I can, I will.”
There is reason for optimism that McKnight will turn a corner this year and get steady carries for the Jets. His conditioning is finally there and he’s getting enough touches in preseason to begin to show his playmaking ability.
McKnight had 25 carries for 101 yards in four preseason games, adding another six catches for 35 yards and a touchdown through the air. He had just three catches in his rookie season and he seems to be emerging as a potential candidate for the third-down back.
“I feel like I’m ready to contribute now and be an option, just be someone coach and the staff can rely on,” McKnight said. “That’s all I can really do at this point.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for news on Gang Green all season long.