McKnight budding into team’s top receiver

John Hageman

DaâÄôJon McKnight understands the history of the receivers that came before him. When he decided that the No. 83 that he wore for his first two seasons at Minnesota didnâÄôt feel right, he knew he couldnâÄôt take Gophers great Ron JohnsonâÄôs No. 3. Instead, he chose No. 6, a number with which he could make his own mark on history. McKnight will have an opportunity to do just that Saturday against Ohio State, as he is just two touchdowns shy of tying the Minnesota record for single-season touchdown catches. The current record, held by Johnson and Omar Douglas, stands at 11. âÄúIâÄôm pretty sure I can get it,âÄù McKnight said with a smile. That confidence may be warranted with the way McKnight has evolved from a seldom-noticed receiver behind Eric Decker to one of senior quarterback Adam WeberâÄôs favorite targets. His change in jersey reflects that evolution. âÄúI just wanted to be my own man for No. 6,âÄù McKnight said. âÄúThe No. 6 who learned from Decker, not just who played behind Decker.âÄù Coming into this year McKnight had just 20 career catches. All of his 17 receptions last season came after Decker suffered a season-ending foot injury against Ohio State. Despite playing just eight games last season, Decker, the Gophers all-time leading receiver, still caught 41 percent of receptions made by Gophers wide receivers. Coming into spring practice, senior quarterback Adam Weber knew McKnight was going to be a valuable asset to help replace the loss of DeckerâÄôs on-field abilities as well as his leadership. âÄúNow that [DeckerâÄôs] moved on, these other wide receivers have taken it upon themselves to really develop themselves, their personalities and their abilities to communicate, especially DaâÄôJon,âÄù Weber said. âÄúHe seems much more comfortable on this football team and in his role. And it shows on the football field.âÄù McKnight looked awfully comfortable Saturday against Penn State, with three of his eight catches coming in the end zone. His nine touchdowns this season put him in a tie for fifth in the nation. All this from a guy who only played one year of high school football. McKnight was a basketball star at Skyline High School in Dallas, but the football coaches there saw potential in his athletic ability and invited him out to practice. âÄúI tried it out,âÄù McKnight said. âÄúI just kept doing it and it became my knack.âÄù His high school teammate and current Gophers linebacker Spencer Reeves said he and fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper coaxed McKnight to play football. Reeves said McKnightâÄôs success after just one year of varsity football is no surprise because of his natural athletic ability. But Gophers interim head coach Jeff Horton said a case like McKnightâÄôs is rare. âÄúUsually you track a guy from his sophomore year on through high school,âÄù Horton said. âÄúFor him being a basketball player, obviously you notice the athletic ability, but for him to develop like he has, that doesnâÄôt happen that often.âÄù McKnight started off as a cornerback in his first stint playing organized football since junior high, and later moved to wide receiver. His ability to box out corners like he would a small forward has been on display all season with a number of acrobatic jump-ball catches, leaving defensive backs frustrated. âÄúIt doesnâÄôt even amaze us sometimes,âÄù sophomore wide receiver Victor Keise said. âÄúHeâÄôs doing it with two hands in the game, but in practice he makes most of those plays with one hand. After a while youâÄôre just like, âÄòThatâÄôs just DaâÄôJon.âÄôâÄù McKnight wore No. 5 in high school, so he said switching to No. 6 also represents that transition. Well that, and MarQueis Gray had already claimed that number. The duo of Gray and McKnight creates matchup problems for a defense, because either of the athletic receivers could be worthy of a double-team. Weber said that could help the Gophers create some mismatches against Ohio State, and potentially some big passes. The Gophers will need all the points they can get if they want to keep pace with Ohio StateâÄôs potent offense, and if last week was any indication, McKnight should be a big part of any success the Gophers have. âÄúOur receivers are doing good, our offensive line is doing good âĦ I feel like our offense as a whole is doing well,âÄù McKnight said. âÄúIâÄôm just trying to do my part.âÄù