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Shark and McKnight are old faces with a new dual role

Kate Gales | Friday, April 21, 2006

It’s a tale of two stars sharing a marquee for the first time.

Jeff Samardzija, Notre Dame’s All-American wide receiver, returns for his senior season as quarterback Brady Quinn’s favorite target.

But Samardzija only emerged as an elite wide receiver after Rhema McKnight, who led the Irish in receiving for two straight years, went down with a leg injury in Notre Dame’s 17-10 win over Michigan Sept. 10.

This spring, McKnight and Samardzija will take the field together again, leading one of the nation’s top offenses. With Samardzija sharing time this spring with the baseball team, McKnight has worked to get back into a groove with Quinn and the offense.

“I think the best part with Jeff not being around here all the time, it’s allowed Brady and Rhema to develop a little bit quicker than they would have if Jeff’s getting as many balls as Rhema is,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

McKnight worked to overcome the physical and mental aspects of his injury last fall, for which he sustained a medical redshirt and retained eligibility to play another year.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You start taking baby steps just to make sure it feels right. … You have to find a way to let go and just be free out there.”

It is the psychological ramifications of the injury that have troubled McKnight the longest as he returns to full strength.

“As far as progressing mentally as well as how I’m feeling physically, I think we’ve been heading in the right direction and hopefully we can continue to build,” he said.

McKnight and Samardzija have very different styles of play – just take a look at their size differential.

Samardzija stands 6-foot-5, several inches taller than the 6-foot-2 McKnight.

“Jeff obviously, he’s a big, big guy,” Quinn said. “He’s got great hands, he kind of brings almost what [former Irish receiver] Maurice [Stovall] had last year, but he kind of has his own flavor to it. Rhema’s more of a shifty [receiver], he gets the ball in his hands and creates things. He runs great routes, finds ways of getting open.”

McKnight had a chance to watch Samardzija as he spent the season on the sidelines recovering from his injury.

“I think Jeff has done a fantastic job,” he said. “When I got hurt last year, he came in and he stepped his game up and he’s one of the best receivers in the country. You can’t ask for more from a player who basically went from being third guy to being this guy known all across the country. Hopefully he and I can come out and make things happen for next year.”

After watching McKnight in practice, Weis said unequivocally that he would be a starter again this fall.

“He knows how to play the game [and] he’s got exceptional quickness,” Weis said. “He just doesn’t have okay quickness, he has exceptional quickness and I even forget about it, because its been so long since he’s been out there now … I think that he has all the skills to be a top line receiver.”

McKnight is not apprehensive about returning to the gridiron with Samardzija, who earned a following among fans last season with his long hair and laid-back persona.

“I think one thing you learn, being in a program like Notre Dame, it’s not so much about being in the spotlight,” he said. “You have to know your role and know the things you can and cannot do.”

He does not anticipate a clashing of egos for the two stars.

“You can’t be concerned about losing the spotlight and who’s number one and who’s number two,” he said. “You have to find a way to be a major contributor to this team and I think throughout our time here I have done that as well as Jeff.”

Samardzija will take the hill for the Irish baseball team tonight against Rutgers at 6 p.m. at Frank Eck Stadium before taking the field with McKnight and the Irish for Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium.