MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Da’Jon McKnight has come a long way since that day in high school detention hall.
He’ll finish his career at Minnesota this weekend without regret, even if his senior year didn’t unfold as he wanted.
“I just want to come out a winner and give it my all,” said the Gophers’ seventh-leading receiver in program history, with 1,847 yards accumulated and only 2½ seasons as a starter. Minnesota hosts Illinois on Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.
McKnight is one of 24 seniors on the roster this year, the best of only a handful of NFL hopefuls in the group. CBS Sports website NFLDraftScout.com has the 6-foot-3, 214-pound McKnight ranked currently as the 36th-best wide receiver prospect for next year’s draft, a list that includes underclassmen who might not declare. McKnight will have to keep improving to keep playing next fall, but he has shown flashes of pro potential.
“I think about it all the time. Hopefully I’m blessed to do it. I just want to keep striving for that dream, and if it comes around I’ll take full advantage of it,” he said.
The story with McKnight for now is not where he’ll go after this, but how he wound up with the Gophers.
McKnight was a basketball standout at Skyline High School in Dallas who found himself in detention after goofing off in class. The football coach who supervised the punishment promised not to tell the basketball coaches if he came to watch the next practice.
“He had my helmet, shoulder pads and cleats waiting for me,” McKnight said. “I thought I’d give it a try. I liked it, so I came back. I got the juice back in football. Basketball-wise I’m short, but in football I was kind of tall so I said, ‘This is my bread right here.'”
He played defensive back at first, but the previous Minnesota coaching staff saw potential in him as a wide receiver after scouting one of Skyline’s scrimmages. Without a junior year on film to impress other schools, McKnight received only two formal scholarship offers, from Louisiana Tech and the Gophers. He decided to join Skyline teammates Troy Stoudermire and Keanon Cooper and make the 950-mile journey north to start his college career.
After learning behind Eric Decker, the all-time leading receiver in Gophers history, McKnight had 311 yards on 17 catches over the last five games of the 2009 season after Decker got hurt.
In 2010, during quarterback Adam Weber’s senior year, McKnight had 750 yards and 10 touchdowns, the third-most in program history. Only Ron Johnson in 2000 and Omar Douglas in 1993, both with 11 scores, had more.
This season hasn’t been as smooth, with another new offense to learn — his fourth coordinator in four years — and a breaking-in process for quarterback MarQueis Gray. But McKnight has done his best to play through some discomfort in his knee — he dislocated the kneecap during spring practice — and be patient with Gray’s development.
“I feel like my legacy is going to be that I worked hard every day and kept a smile on everybody’s face,” McKnight said. “I never took things for granted, because nothing is promised to me.”
The season breakout came on Nov. 5 at Michigan State, when Gray found him for nine completions, 173 yards and three touchdowns, all either matching or establishing career highs. McKnight is the only player in program history to have two three-touchdown games. His other such performance was last year at home in a loss to Penn State.
“He certainly has come on, again, as the quarterback as gotten better. He’s gotten better. That’s all a part of going through it,” coach Jerry Kill said.
Free safety Kim Royston, who has faced McKnight plenty of times in practice, remarked about McKnight’s ability to make tough catches in tight coverage.
“The guy might be all over him, but he’s going to be the guy to get the reception. When you’re a receiver that’s probably the best thing you can have,” Royston said, adding: “He’s big. He’s athletic. He has great ball skills. Long arms, big hands. That’s what NFL guys love, right?”
NOTES: Kill said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Stoudermire will be awarded a medical redshirt by the NCAA, giving him another year of eligibility. He broke his arm in September and played in four games. … Kill mentioned Royston and RB Duane Bennett as two seniors whose effort and perseverance he’s been most impressed by. “If I could have a Christmas list of giving somebody a gift, I’d love to see those seniors get a win on Saturday,” Kill said.
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