CORTLAND, NY – April 30th, opening day for Jets rookie minicamp, is probably not a happy memory for Jets rookie running back Joe McKnight. The former U.S.C. standout endured a rough introduction to professional football, upchucking on the sidelines and dropping multiple passes. But nobody, least of all athletes, should be judged entirely by a single occasion of disappointing performance. So very few protested when the somewhat embarrassing occurrence was promptly swept into inconsequence by Head Coach Rex Ryan, who defended McKnight against a case of nerves, before amusingly remarking “I thought Joe McKnight looked good, when he wasn’t throwing up.”
This was, of course, a player with an impressive resume, who New York identified as a very valuable fourth round selection, aggressively trading up for his services. As a Trojan, McKnight was burdened by inevitable comparisons to Reggie Bush, another multifaceted talent at tailback. Bush departed Southern California a venerable highlight reel hero, and casted a daunting shadow for his heir. Unsurprisingly, McKnight couldn’t quite equal the feats of his predecessor, dogged by injuries and impossible expectations. But to deem his achievements unimpressive would be an unfair analysis. McKnight piled up just over a thousand yards in his final college season, and contributed an eye-popping 7.4 yards per carry in 2008 while battling nasty assorted maladies, such as turf toe. Sure, any NFL team would be interested, but the Jets, possibly salivating at the possibility of a versatile threat complimenting the bulldozing Shonn Greene for years to come, leapt at the opportunity to nab a potentially highly undervalued asset. Sound reasoning leading to a high upside maneuver… and the very early returns? Not good.
For April’s temporary infamy would be reconsidered in light of another worrisome setback. Just days before the official launch of training camp, McKnight failed his conditioning run. Considering his early trials, this latest development was certainly surprising. Surely McKnight would have worked double-time to avoid any other blunders that could be easily perceived as poor harbingers. And yet, it took a second test for the rookie to pass.
Standing under a canopy following the morning foray, McKnight patiently outlined a personal interpretation of his recent struggles. “It was a bad day,” he said, later opining, “I burned myself out.” The rookie did not seem eager to banish the experience from his memory bank. “I’m not going to forget about it,” he said resolutely, later claiming to be unbothered by the opinions of others. “Once I’m on the field, I don’t care about people’s perceptions.” Most telling was McKnight’s admission that he “Never gave [himself] time to rest,” perhaps suggesting weariness accumulated from months of hard training.
McKnight’s defense is a plausible one. That he may have worked too hard. Or it could have been another bad day. Either way, both he and the Jets hope better ones are ahead, and soon. He did have an encouraging practice, absorbing a brutal collision early on with James Ihedigbo after rocketing through the line of scrimmage with a bolt-like burst. McKnight was no worse for wear after the hit, eating another brutal shot in the secondary as the session wound down. It was an active practice, and if repeated, the kind of display that could set all questioning aside. For now, the Jets could care less about McKnight approximating Bush. They’d gladly take Joe McKnight, the high-reward guy they traded up for.
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