College football: Texas A&M counting on Trevor Knight to trigger turnaround
HOOVER, Ala. -- As a graduate transfer in search of immediate playing time for his senior season, quarterback Trevor Knight contacted several college football coaches in early December.
His initial inquiry to Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin elicited a cold shoulder.
"He was very adamant on the idea that he had two quarterbacks they were very comfortable with. And he told me that," Knight said during the week's SEC football media days. "He said, 'Thanks for the conversation, but that's the direction we're moving forward in.' "
Within two weeks, both of those quarterbacks announced plans to transfer to other schools. Sumlin's tone changed.
"He definitely wasn't begging," recalled Knight, a transfer from Oklahoma who won the Aggies' starting quarterback job in spring drills. "But our conversations changed dramatically after that."
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Heading into Sumlin's fifth season at the school, Knight is the clear-cut starter for first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone as the Aggies seek to improve on last year's 8-5 mark that included a 5-0 break from the gate but struggles down the stretch.
A&M averaged 27.8 points per game last season, the lowest figure in the Sumlin era. Sumlin made it clear that Knight, who started 15 games during his career at Oklahoma, has brought an element of maturity to a locker room that needed it, triggering what the coach called "a drama-free off-season" at a school in search of one.
Knight, who lost his starting job at OU to Baker Mayfield last season, is best remembered for leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to cap the 2013 season. Knight completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in that contest while earning Sugar Bowl MVP honors. He posted an 11-4 record as a starter for the Sooners. A&M, by comparison, is 16-10 over the past two seasons.
"He filled a void for us as a quarterback who had real game experience and had some success. For us, it was a great match," Sumlin said. "It's been that way since he came into the first team meeting, sitting there in the front row with his beard and all the 17- and 18-year-olds are going, 'Who is that old man? Didn't I see him on TV playing for Oklahoma?' His ability to be humble and still be able to share his experiences and talk to our guys, it's been fabulous."
Without question, Knight is comfortable in the spotlight. During his time at Oklahoma, he appeared on the regional cover of the Sports Illustrated 2014 college football preview issue and received a shout-out from singer Katy Perry to "call me" during an ESPN College GameDay appearance in October, 2014.
During a series of interviews at SEC media days, Knight discussed a wide variety of topics. He addressed lessons learned by losing his starting job to Mayfield, a former teammate he still counts as a close friend, as well as his leadership role in organizing a May mission trip to Haiti with 15 current A&M players that he characterized as a "huge" step in team bonding for a first-year starter at quarterback.
"I got to know more about them in that one week than I would have over a four-year span of playing football," said Knight, who also was part of three summer mission trips during his time at OU. "I got to see guys when their walls were broken down. As a big-time college football player, you put up your guard a little bit. But when you go through something like that, you're completely vulnerable and you have deep conversations. I got to know who they are as people and not just as football players. And that's going to help moving forward."
How much it helps A&M's finish in the SEC West Division standings (the Aggies finished fourth among seven teams in preseason media balloting) remains to be seen.
Knight flashed promise in the Aggies' spring game by completing 25 of 36 passes for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also scored on a 2-yard run. During two games played in 2014, he posted a 2-0 record as OU's starting quarterback against the two schools projected to be the SEC's best this season: the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama (Jan. 2, 2014) and a 34-10 victory at home against Tennessee on Sept. 13, 2014.
But it has been Knight's intangibles, said defensive end Myles Garrett, that speak loudest to A&M teammates.
Asked what Knight provided that A&M has been lacking, Garrett said: "A confident leader as a quarterback. That is what we needed. We have a lot of young guys who have to prove themselves and Trevor has already proven himself. He has shown that he can play with anybody and showed that he is a great person as well as a great leader from what he has done this summer. We're going to try to follow it and we're going to need him."
Behind Knight, the Aggies' lone veteran quarterback on the roster is Jake Hubenak. The former walk-on at Oklahoma State, a junior, made his lone Division I start in the team's 27-21 loss to Louisville in last year's Music City Bowl after the departures of Allen and Murray.
Those roster voids provided an opportunity for Knight (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), a San Antonio native who understands he will be under the microscope this season.
A strong September could cool things considerably and Knight understands the stakes heading into the Sept. 3 opener against UCLA. With only one season of eligibility available, Knight said he has taken a hands-on approach in efforts to sway his new teammates.
"It's a unique balance. You've got to build your teammates' trust without stepping on any toes," Knight said. "You've got to be relational with guys. And you've got to prove yourself on the field and in the weight room.
"I think I'm a great leader verbally. So I continue to try to bring the guys along and develop that culture. I think X's and O's are extremely important. But if you have a great culture, you're going to be successful. That's not just in football. That's in any organization. So my whole goal was to come in and be the leader that I am and get the culture moving in the right direction."
Sumlin said he has sensed the shift. When he meets with Knight, Sumlin said: "You're dealing with a mature guy, a guy that understands his strengths and weaknesses that you didn't understand at 18 .... The growth during your career can happen quicker if you understand where your shortcomings are, and there was no greater teacher than losing this opportunity at Oklahoma."
Now, a fresh opportunity to lead a college football team exists for Knight at A&M. Knight acknowledged it was "a confidence killer" to lose the starting job at OU but said he's regained his mental edge in College Station. He predicted he could be "one of those top guys" among SEC quarterbacks although he was not voted to the three-deep, preseason All-SEC team selected by media members in Hoover, Ala.
"I feel very confident in myself as a player," Knight said. "I never thought I'd be a transfer. You want to come in, be the guy, win the Heisman Trophy and win a national championship. But that's not how life unfolds all the time.
"This is a chance to put some negativity in the past and move forward and start a new chapter."
For both the A&M quarterback and the coach who initially offered him a cold shoulder in Knight's search to lead a new college team.
This article was written by Jimmy Burch from Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.