The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Irish Insider: McKnight and day

Bobby Griffin | Friday, September 1, 2006

Notre Dame wide receiver Rhema McKnight stood anxiously on the sideline, crutches tugged under his shoulder pad-free No. 5 jersey, and watched the Irish offense explode under first year head coach Charlie Weis – his own leg preventing him from being part of the process.

McKnight witnessed teammate Maurice Stovall go from a junior with 21 catches for 313 yards to a third round NFL draft pick. He saw his replacement, Jeff Samardzija, transform himself from an unknown receiver to a national celebrity.

He observed his battery mate, quarterback Brady Quinn, pick apart opposing offenses as if they were Pop Warner squads, and tight end Anthony Fasano draw safeties away from the sideline routes he used to run with ease.

And while he watched his teammates find success, his own place on the sidelines was a reminder of how close he came to being a part of it. McKnight came into 2005 with high expectations after a strong junior season (42 catches, 610 yards, 3 touchdowns), but saw it fade away with one play in Ann Arbor.

But instead of viewing that ill-fated crossing pattern as a hindrance, he sees it as a crossroads.

Because while McKnight spent all but two games of last season unable to play, he now has a chance to re-establish himself on perhaps the most powerful offense in the country – a unit that undoubtedly developed that reputation without him.

Patiently waiting

McKnight’s season didn’t end when he was put on the shelf following the Michigan game on Sept. 10. Instead of catching passes, McKnight’s responsibilities became centered on rehabbing his knee and being a source of off-field support for his teammates.

It was not the ideal situation for a player who might have been an NFL draft pick with a full, productive season – a likely scenario given McKnight’s talent and Notre Dame’s success in 2005. However, it was a role the fifth-year senior accepted.

But with a full year of anticipation for the start of the 2006 season and his subsequent return to college football – McKnight could not be more prepared.

“I always said it would be nice to have two years in this offense and look what I got,” McKnight said after practice Tuesday. “So I’m very thankful I’m back … and I’m going to try to take advantage of it.”

McKnight trusts his coaches when they tell him he looks better now than he did in the past, despite having concerns last year regarding his injury and the timetable for his full recovery.

But maybe even more importantly, McKnight trusts the mental strides he made last season when he was unable to perform physically. Studying game film is one thing, but being forced to watch plays develop from the sideline left McKnight with a new perspective on reading defenses.

“I’ve had the opportunity to sit back on the sidelines, just watch other defenses, see how they rotate, watch corners … I’ve been able to capitalize on the opportunity just to sit around and watch,” McKnight said.

And while McKnight stored the information for a time when he would return to the field, he also shared it with his teammates – notably Samardzija and Stovall – who could benefit from his insight.

“Any time you have a veteran like that on the sidelines, unfortunately on the sidelines, he adds to what you see,” Samardzija said after practice Tuesday. “He sees things that you can’t.”

McKnight and Samardzija share a unique relationship. It’s unlikely the Cubs prospect would have compiled the same statistics if his teammate were healthy last season. Samardzija would have been the third receiver, behind McKnight and Stovall, and had fewer opportunities to showcase his abilities.

But instead of harboring bad feelings for his own misfortune, McKnight encouraged Samardzija and gave him advice throughout the season. This year, the two have been working on their rhythm since spring practice began.

“Any time I had an opportunity to say, ‘hey you know look out for this, watch out for that,’ I’m pretty sure [Samardzija] took the advice and worked with it,” McKnight said. “He made the best of an unfortunate situation and look where he’s at now.”

Finding his own role

Regardless of his status as one of Notre Dame’s most talented offensive players, he is still faced with a glaring reality – having not played during the Irish resurgence, McKnight is in the rare position of having to form his own identity as a fifth-year senior.

It’s well documented that Quinn and Samardzija have one of the top rapports in the country as a quarterback-receiver tandem. The two hooked up for 15 of Quinn’s 32 touchdowns last year.

Luckily, though, there is an open spot opposite Samardzija that was vacated when Stovall (and his 11 touchdowns) graduated in May.

And given McKnight’s athleticism and intelligence – he graduated earlier this year with degrees in psychology and computer applications – it shouldn’t take long before Quinn and McKnight find the chemistry that was visible before his injury.

When that happens, the Irish offense will have another weapon in its already varied arsenal. McKnight is one of the most talented players on the Notre Dame roster, made evident by his numbers prior to Weis’ arrival in South Bend (36 games, 98 receptions, 1,301 yards and six touchdowns) and in his short 2005 season.

Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey understands this reality and studied old film of McKnight in order to prepare for Saturday’s game. He also viewed tapes from last season in order to anticipate how McKnight might be used.

“What you have to do is go and look at that position last year and see how that position was used,” Gailey said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Then you go back to prior tape and see how that person can adapt to that position.”

It’s unlikely that McKnight will have an identical role to Stovall’s from last season. The two receivers have different builds and different skills. Stovall was a big receiver (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) who was a jump ball threat and a goal line mismatch. McKnight is a smaller, elusive wide out (6-foot-2, 212 pounds).

But Gailey feels that there is still some benefit to understanding Stovall’s role to get a better handle on McKnight Saturday.

“I don’t think they’ll adjust everything they do with that position. … But him being a great athlete, they’ll be able to plug him in there,” he said.

The bigger picture

But when the clock hits 8 p.m. on Saturday and the Irish begin a season where many expect them to contend for a BCS National Championship, the story will not be Rhema McKnight. The focus will be on Notre Dame, of which McKnight is just a small part.

There will be no sideline reports of McKnight’s fight to get back on the field. Nor will there be talk of how a kid from Inglewood, Calif. – a town better known for being referenced by The Game than producing college football players – emerged to become one of the integral parts of a mission that leaves South Bend with Glendale, Ariz. in its periphery.

So while McKnight begins his own individual quest to return to his level of on-field production, and potentially surpass it, Notre Dame will be faced with the same challenge.

Last year’s 9-3 finish, and loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, was a start – a stepping stone for what could happen if Notre Dame’s potential manifests itself in victories during the 2006 season.

And if the Irish do outperform last season’s team, then and only then, can people begin to sit back and speculate about the effect McKnight had on the process. When this happens, he can become the story – an integral part of the 2006 team that was missing one year earlier.

But as of now, McKnight just wants to get back to playing football.

“Sitting back and watching every game hurt, but it is what it is,” McKnight said.

Come Saturday, however, there will be no more watching from the sidelines.

When McKnight puts on his game jersey, this time covering his shoulder pads – the only thing the senior receiver and Notre Dame fans will wait for is No. 5’s first six points since last September.