U's McKnight brings hoops skills to football

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2011 - 12:53 AM

Da'Jon McKnight was chasing hoop dreams in high school before some football coaches made him an offer he couldn't refuse. And now, he's glad he switched.

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Gophers wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (6) wanted to be the next Michael Jordan in a Dallas high school, but football coaches convinced him to return to their sport.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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What might be considered borderline blackmail started Da'Jon McKnight's permanent transition from basketball to football during his senior year in high school.

After McKnight received an in-school suspension for clowning in class, the then-senior worried that news of his troubles would reach the basketball staff at Skyline High School in Dallas.

No need to worry, school football coaches who supervised the detention told McKnight. They promised to keep quiet if McKnight promised to attend the next football practice. McKnight agreed to show up, nothing more.

"My head coach, Coach [Reginald] Samples, he had my jersey, my shoulder pads, my helmet and some new gloves waiting for me, all ready to go to practice," said McKnight, a Gophers senior. "I practiced for a little bit. I got the groove back."

Gophers cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who played with McKnight at Skyline, said McKnight didn't know how bad coaches wanted to bring McKnight back to football, a sport he'd last played as a freshman.

"Once he put on the cleats, he was in trouble," Stoudermire said. "Coach got him out there. He was running routes and catching balls."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Gophers, who employ one of the Big Ten's most inexperienced receiving corps, need McKnight -- who's on the 2011 Biletnikoff Award watch list -- to consistently produce. Last year, he led the Gophers with 48 catches for 750 receiving yards. The squad's No. 2 wideout from a year ago, MarQueis Gray, has moved to quarterback.

"He has to have a great year for us to be very good football team. I mean, he really does," new Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "He's our most experienced receiver. ... I think he's looking forward to that challenge."

He's one of the team's most athletic players, a credit to his basketball background. McKnight said the skills he honed on the hardwood -- he played both guard positions in high school -- make him a better receiver.

When he faces man-to-man pressure ...

"In basketball, you've got the crossover," he said. "That's more like getting off a press with a [defensive back]."

When Gray throws him a high pass near the goal line ...

"I was an alley-oop man. A jump ball in the end zone is like an alley-oop to me," he said.

Gray said McKnight's versatility will allow him to take more risks.

"Just throw the ball anytime you need, and know that he'll come down with it," he said.

Stoudermire, McKnight's prep quarterback, witnessed that gift of go-get-it during a high school playoff game when one of his passes sailed over his teammate's head. He said McKnight jumped and caught the ball with his arms draping over his defender's shoulders.

"It was a mismatch for all the cornerbacks we played in high school," Stoudermire said.

McKnight's physical prowess should pose similar challenges for opposing defensive backfield's this season. He's 6-3 and tops 210 pounds, the dimensions of a young NFL receiver. Plus, McKnight said he's nearly 100 percent, months after a knee injury bothered him in spring ball. He said he's ready to lead by ability in 2011.

Unlike McKnight's stubborn switch to football in high school, Kill won't have to coax his top receiver to keep him on the field. McKnight said he's been converted.

"I thought I was the next Michael Jordan like everybody else. And then I came out for football and I realized, it's not too bad," he said. "Basketball, I'm kind of short. In football, I'm a tall guy. In football, I feel like [since] I'm a tall guy, it'd be easier for me."

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