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McKnight seeks own signature moment

The sophomore's path to becoming the next Reggie Bush at USC has had its rough patches.

October 08, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Everyone wanted him to be the next Reggie Bush.

They wanted that eye-blink acceleration. Shuddery moves. Big plays.

From the moment Joe McKnight arrived at USC last season, sportswriters drew comparisons and fans waited for the new tailback to start hurdling linebackers, flipping into the end zone. Even the coaches got swept up, a little too eager for the plays that can turn games around.

Most of all, McKnight wanted it. Maybe the young man from Louisiana tried too hard to run in the footsteps of the Heisman Trophy winner who preceded him.

"I mean, it's a lot of pressure," he says in a muted drawl. "I tried to live up to expectations."

Four games into his second season, McKnight is no Reggie Bush, at least not the Bush who left USC with two national championships and the bronze hardware. Certainly not the Bush who just had two punt returns for touchdowns on "Monday Night Football."

The sophomore shows flashes of brilliance alongside mistakes that young players are prone to commit.

A big game against Ohio State, a big fumble at Oregon State.

"People remember the Reggie from Fresno State," Coach Pete Carroll said, citing a memorable performance from Bush's final college season. "They expect a guy in that mode."

Even before McKnight reached USC, back at John Curtis High in suburban New Orleans, he knew what people wanted. The quiet kid used those expectations to make himself into a blue-chip player.

"He takes it personally," said J.T. Curtis, his high school coach. "He's so competitive and he wants to excel, sometimes you can see the frustration."

When USC recruiters whispered sweet comparisons, McKnight listened. They weren't the only ones.

"He is the next Reggie Bush," said Bob Toledo, the former UCLA coach who landed at Tulane. "He's that good."

On national signing day, McKnight mentioned that he, Carroll and Bush had spoken on a conference call during the recruiting period, an NCAA violation. The program escaped penalty, McKnight later claiming he misspoke. But rather than avoid the Bush legacy, he flew toward it like a moth to a flame.

After all, Bush and he were almost exactly the same size. Both quick-footed. Good vision. If people hoped for a reincarnation, McKnight would do his best to oblige.

"It's not the fans' fault . . . they just want success for their team," he said. "It took me a while to get that out of my head."

At the time, USC was looking to ignite a ground game that had faded after Bush and backfield mate LenDale White left school early for the NFL. The coaches remembered, all too clearly, what it felt like to have a player who could turn a simple off-tackle run into a game breaker.

"Oh yeah, it's really fun," Carroll said. "It makes you excited in preparation, excited to get to the game and watch the next play. What's going to happen?"

The Trojans might not have won the 2004 national title without Bush leading a second-half comeback against Virginia Tech, returning a punt for a score at Oregon State and busting two long touchdowns in a close game against UCLA.

So, on a team loaded with more-experienced tailbacks, the coaching staff pushed McKnight into action. He had six carries for 26 yards and a pass reception in the season opener against Idaho. By the third game, he was returning punts.

"He was so natural," Carroll said. "He just looked so good doing it."

But something felt wrong. McKnight started dropping passes he should have caught, looking uncomfortable at times. The highlights -- a 51-yard touchdown run at Notre Dame -- were few.

Too often, he tried to spin or bounce or circle back, losing yards.

"There's no question Joe was pressing," said Curtis, who watched from New Orleans. "He tried to make plays as opposed to letting things flow."

The USC coaches realized they had been down this road before. How many times had they pulled a young Bush aside, asking him to be patient, to settle for three-yard gains now and then?

They also decided to cut back on McKnight's role in the offense. As Carroll said: "We made mistakes . . . we were asking him to do too many varied things."

Working from a slimmer playbook, McKnight ran for 89 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale against UCLA, then torched Illinois in the Rose Bowl, generating 206 all-purpose yards that included a 65-yard run with a bobbled lateral to put the game away.

Some heralded this late burst as a breakthrough. Others continued to view McKnight's freshman season as a disappointment.

"They put unfair expectations on the kid," running backs coach Todd McNair said. "They're comparing him to Reggie as a finished product."

The numbers support this argument. Bush ran 90 times for 521 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman; McKnight ran 94 times for 540 yards and an equal number of scores. Bush held the edge, 314 yards to 203, in receptions.

Critics also viewed McKnight's reserved demeanor as moodiness, suggesting that USC coaches were handling him with kid gloves. Again, McNair shakes his head: "I think Reggie needed more coddling than Joe."

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