Jonathan McKnight talks little, does lots
TUCSON, Ariz. — He has 131 total tackles, 100 unassisted and five interceptions. He’s been a mainstay in Arizona’s defensive backfield for two-plus years and three of the last four.
And yet, he may be the most unsung Arizona football player who suits up every game for the Wildcats. He’s Jonathan McKnight, Arizona’s senior cornerback and one of the most seasoned players on the team having started 25 games and played in 42.
Yet, he’s been "a quiet leader for us," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said this week in preparation for visiting Cal on Saturday night.
Quiet indeed. Rare does he grant media interview requests. He declined to be interviewed on Wednesday. He lets his play do his talking and has for most of his career at Arizona.
He’s like a silent missile at the cornerback spot.
Cornerbacks coach David Lockwood said McKnight doesn’t say much and is a "more behind-the-scenes" guy, who is never too high and never too low.
"Jon is not about the hype," Rodriguez said. "He’s a smart football player. He gets it. He’s a guy who has the capability to make big plays. And he’s made some in the past."
Now would be the time to make some more, in as much as Arizona opens up Pac-12 play this week with former Arizona assistant coach and the pass-happy Sonny Dykes calling plays for the Golden Bears. Cal threw the ball 68 times in two games and is surely capable of averaging more behind quarterback Jared Goff, who has thrown seven touchdowns this season.
McKnight will be busy. All the defensive backs will be. But knowing his history and his ability, former Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer recently said McKnight may be the most under-valued guy for Arizona.
"He’s been here so long and people are always talking about the new guys and who is going to step up?" Fischer said. "He’s been very consistent this year. He’s always the guy who is very level headed (but) is very competitive on the field though. I don’t think he gets enough praise."
How could that change?
"Get 10 picks (interceptions) this year," Fischer said straight-faced. "But the thing is, when they aren’t throwing the ball your way all the time, how are you going to do that? I think he’s doing very well in coverage this year so far. He’s gotten bigger and is able to manhandle some of the receivers (he faces)."
More importantly, McKnight, a 5-foot-11, 175-pounder from River Ridge, La., learned the art of moving from play to play and not worrying about the past. Yes, Lockwood, said that’s the competitor in him doing that. But, …
"He’s done a better job that if something does happen he doesn’t get down on himself," said Lockwood. "He did in the past."
Yet, in the world of being a cornerback you’re as good as your last haircut or last play.
"You gotta have a short (memory)," Rodriguez said. "You’re out on an island quite a bit. His demeanor is always pretty good."
Never too high and never too low as Lockwood said. It’s what you want in a good cornerback.
"Some of the best corners are the guys you never notice," Rodriguez said. "He’s not getting beat. He’s not getting attacked."
It’s a tribute to how far he’s come. Earlier in his career he had to deal with an injured knee and then later an injured shoulder. He redshirted in 2011 because of the knee issue.
"Where he is now is where he should have been two years ago," Lockwood said. "It’s just a shame because you wished he had another year."
Arizona is hoping history will repeat itself — and in a good way. The last time Arizona opened the Pac-12 season and won was in 2010 vs. Cal, and appropriately it moved to 4-0 in doing so.
That would be the case if Arizona knocks off Cal on Saturday in Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats haven’t started 4-0 since then. But all who follow Arizona football know playing Cal rarely is easy or comfortable. Of the 31 meetings, 21 have been decided by eight points or less, including the last three.
"We had a close game with them last year and we were fortunate to win that game," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of his team’s 33-28 win. "They moved the ball up and down the field and we didn’t block them very well, so I think it’s a situation where they remember the game from last year rather than their record."
For both teams it begins the conference season in what could be a unpredictable finish come November given USC has been upset and Arizona State has lost its quarterback for a game or two. What’s key is Arizona keeping pace in the race.
"The first goal for every team is to win your league," Rodriguez said. "There is added importance to conference games, and the players should feel that. You want to get off to a good start, but I think the teams in this league are going to beat each other up. One loss won’t doom you, but you’d rather start with a win."
The doom could come in not containing one of the conference’s best quarterbacks in Jared Goff, who Rodriguez said has an "NFL arm."
"He sees the field well and he’s a tough competitor," Rodriguez said. "He looks even bigger and stronger now, and he’s throwing the ball even better than he did last year. He has really skilled players around him, and he has all his running backs and receivers again. They moved the ball pretty efficiently against a good Northwestern team.”
But will they against Arizona?
WHAT TO WATCH
Arizona’s defense bend or break: Arizona’s defense hasn’t been great but it’s been good enough to win three games. Opponents have been able to race up and down the field but UA has found enough stops to be just good enough. No question Arizona’s defensive secondary will be tested often. Last week it wasn’t all that good. That could mean trouble.
DaVonte’ Neal: Will he or won’t he play and if he does will he have an impact. All last season Arizona talked about how good and how much potential he had in doing a lot of things for Arizona. So far he’s done little because he’s apparently been injured. He saw action (he called a fair catch) last week. You’d think he’d be more ready this time around.
California’s offense: The Bears have shown they can run and they can pass. They however are more prolific via the air behind Goff. And a second quarterback in Luke Rubenzer, who is capable of moving the ball. Cal spreads the ball around in the backfield with Daniel Lasco leading the way with 116 rushing yards.
WHAT TO KNOW
— Arizona has become a team of balance with a good ground game and a very solid passing game. One has helped the other. Arizona QB Anu Solomon leads all FBS freshmen quarterbacks with 934 passing yards.
— Additionally, freshman running back Nick Wilson leads all newcomers with 449 rushing yards. He’s rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his first three games, replacing an injured Terris Jones-Grigsby in the second game.
— Arizona is averaging 40.1 points per game and 528 yards per game at Arizona Stadium under Rich Rodriguez.