When the Jets traded Leon Washington to Seattle to obtain a fourth-round pick, they knew they were getting a talented running back who could also contribute on special teams as a returner. They just didn’t know they might also be getting a defensive back.
Joe McKnight, the running back out of USC who was so out of shape during this summer’s rookie camp that he vomited, is suddenly becoming an intriguing problem for the Jets. In Sunday’s blowout win over Buffalo, McKnight got the first carries of his NFL career, but the Jets are actually waiting to see if someday, he’ll get his first interception.
When he joined USC out of high school, McKnight said that he was originally being recruited to play in the secondary. Upon arriving on campus, coach Pete Carroll told him they didn’t want to risk him getting injured playing on defense and his future was in the back field. But that didn’t stop McKnight from trying to get some action in the secondary.
“During summer and workouts, I’d go out there and play as a cornerback,” McKnight recalls with a laugh. “I asked coach Carroll if I could play cornerback and said ‘no’ but I kept going out there, hoping I’d get a chance. I’d go out there every day.”
While he was clearly drafted to be the team’s No. 3 back this year, McKnight’s athleticism and combination of speed and strength has certainly caught the eye of head coach Rex Ryan. On Monday, Ryan talked in glowing terms about the versatility of McKnight as a player who he could see time playing offense or defense for his Jets.
“I think he could play corner. I don’t think there’s any doubt when you see him. I think [secondary coach] Dennis Thurman would love to have that opportunity to coach him,” Ryan said. “I had a [USC] coach tell me that he was the best receiver and the best corner on their campus the day he showed up. He has that kind of athleticism.”
Ryan said that he would seriously consider playing McKnight there but for the glut of cornerbacks already on the team. Just like he did at USC, however, McKnight is making an impression on the defensive side of the ball. Working with the scout team, he will often play as a cornerback.
On Wednesday morning, for instance, he had a pass-block on a throw by Mark Sanchez that went in the direction of Braylon Edwards.
“It’s a pride thing for me, I love playing corner back and love just getting out there,” McKnight said. “They tell me that by the time I’m finished here, I’ll play both ways, both sides of the ball. I take that as a compliment.”
It’s at that point that defensive end Jamaal Westerman, who occupies a locker several spaces removed from McKnight, makes an interjection.
“I’m telling you something Joe, you’d make a hell of a corner in this league,” Westerman said.