Former Southern Nash RB Knight shines in N.C. State debut

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North Carolina State running back Zonovan Knight (24) runs during the first half of an NCAA college football game against East Carolina in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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East Carolina NC State Football
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East Carolina NC State Football

Sports Writer

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Southern Nash football coach Brian Foster traveled to Furman University on Saturday to support a pair of former players in the Paladins’ opening-week game against Charleston Southern.

The former Firebird teammates and second-year college players, Furman linebacker Dae’one Wilkins and Buccaneers running back Kendrick Bell, were playing against each other for the first time.

So while Foster had his eyes focused on the field in front of him, his cell phone occasionally tugged his attention away. The longtime Southern Nash coach was receiving updates from Carter-Finley Stadium where his former star running back Zonovan Knight was taking his first snaps as a collegiate player for N.C. State.

It didn’t take long for Foster’s phone to buzz as the true freshman made an impact right away in the Wolfpack’s 34-6 win over visiting East Carolina in front of a sold-out crowd.

Knight took his first career handoff and burst through the middle of the Pirates’ defense for a 9-yard touchdown run with 8:34 left in the first quarter.

N.C. State took a 7-0 lead on the score and never trailed in the Week 1 victory.

“That was a surreal feeling with the crowd by the end zone,” Knight said of scoring a touchdown on his first carry. “I feel like everybody wishes they could have that experience.”

Knight scored a total of 71 rushing touchdowns at Southern Nash on his way to securing the Firebirds’ career rushing record with 5,073 yards before he left to attend NCSU in the spring. The four-star recruit began working with the team in January, and later shined at the team’s spring game.

That experience working with the team, Knight said, helped him adjust to the speed of the college game and what to expect in terms of physicality. That experience, however, didn't do anything to ease Knight's racing mind before the game. He said he dealt with a bout of nerves before getting his first carry, but that soon melted away after his first touch went for six points.

“I went out there a little nervous but after that first play when I scored all that fear and stuff went away,” Knight said. “Everything just felt like it came easier. I felt like I was where I belong at the D-I level. It was crazy, to be honest. Not many people score off their first carry so it was a great experience for me.”

Knight led the Wolfpack (1-0) with 43 rushing yards and a touchdown on a team-high nine carries. He split touches with a young and crowded backfield, including fellow true freshman Jordan Houston (six carries, 36 yards and a touchdown).

But Knight was always bound to crack the starting lineup. Since he arrived on campus more than eight months ago, Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren gave every indication that his prized recruit would be an important piece in the offense once the season began.

So far, so good.

Doeren said he was happy to see Knight punch in for the early touchdown, and praised the performance of the young, versatile backfield which gives the Wolfpack a number of different options to attack defenses from catching passes out of the backfield to running between the tackles.

“It was great to see a bunch of young players perform,” Doeren said. “Some, it was their first time playing and not just being young, so it was awesome to see that.

"(And) that was great for (Knight's) confidence to get into the end zone, and for all of these guys to have success it’s going to bring more. So I’m happy for him and happy for the offensive line to get him that hole."

Knight was also involved in the passing game when he hauled in a one-handed grab coming out of the backfield while falling toward the sideline. The 2-yard catch could signal a larger role for Knight who, coming from a run-first school, said he focused heavily on improving his hands when he arrived on campus.

He caught a total of 12 passes over three years at Southern Nash.

“It’s going great,” Knight said of his pass-catching improvements. “Because in high school we were a running team so I wasn't used to it. But being here since January, I had time to improve on my hands and I’ve seen that improvement on the field.”

Despite having the nickname of ‘Bam’, Knight has always found success with his speed. So it’s no surprise that he acclimated to the college game quickly. He proved tough to bring down, and his slippery running style has the potential to break big plays.

“It was a big adjustment as far as tempo,” Knight said. “But running downhill is the same. You just have to get your eyes up and read the hole.”

In the third quarter he was tackled hard by an ECU defensive end that reminded him that he wasn’t playing against high schoolers anymore.

“I remember that hit,” he said. “He got me as soon as I took the handoff, but it was like you have to read it and react a little faster here.”

Playing on Friday nights allowed Knight to be the feature running back. He had 10 100-yard games as a senior for Southern Nash last season, and had 23 in his three-year varsity career. He remembers how he felt after games where he saw a heavy workload, and expected that same feeling once the game was over.

But with how the Wolfpack spread the carries on Saturday, Knight felt like he could play another 60 minutes.

“I feel fresher because I didn’t take that much of a load,” he said. “I came into the game expecting to be sore tomorrow, but I feel great right now.”

So does N.C State.