When it comes to utility player John Knox, perhaps Charleston offensive coordinator Tate Gregory blurted out the perfect headline Thursday at practice.
“He’s the ultimate offensive weapon,” Gregory said.
Apparently, several others agreed with that assessment as Knox made the first-team preseason All-Mountain East Conference squad despite not having a definitive position — he was listed as an “athlete.”
That undefined role is likely to continue this season for Knox as Gregory will look to get the ball into the 5-foot-10, 190-pound speedster’s hands in just about any way possible.
“We’re going to play him everywhere,” Gregory said. “He’s one of the best football players in the conference in my opinion. Realistically, I think he’s an all-conference-caliber player as a quarterback, as a receiver ... we could probably throw him on defense and he could do some things. He just makes plays with the ball in his hands.”
Knox spent the past two seasons as the backup quarterback behind Maurice Leak and got significant playing time due to Leak’s injuries. But even when Leak was healthy and playing, there was no keeping Knox off the field.
He was second on the team in rushing last year, picking up 664 yards on 153 carries with a team-best six rushing touchdowns.
As a passer, Knox completed 30 of 52 attempts for 329 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. As a receiver, Knox was third in the team in both receptions (20) and yardage (202) and hauled in three scoring passes.
“He’ll play some quarterback, we’ve got a package of things we can do with him there,” Gregory said. “He’s also going to be at receiver and a little bit of running back too.”
Aside from the numbers and positions, Knox will be asked to take on an extended leadership role on the offensive side of the ball this season, especially after Leak graduated last year. It’s a challenge that both Knox and Gregory said he is ready to tackle.
“I’ve improved tremendously on my pocket awareness and reading defenses and knowing the defenses when I’m running my routes,” Knox said. “Overall, my football IQ has gone up a lot since my freshman year. I’m trying to get better and lead the team. I know they look at me as a leader, so I’m just trying to lead the team by example and get everybody hyped up so we can go out and win a ring.”
“All of our guys see what he’s done on the field for the past two years and that carries a lot of weight with them,” Gregory said. “But the bigger thing is, when you watch him practice every day, I think in the three years he’s been in our program I can’t ever recall him having a day where he’s just been out of it practice-wise. He’s had days when he’s made some mistakes, but he always brings energy, he never takes plays off, he’s always eager to go in every drill we do — that carries more weight than being a vocal leader or anything like that.”
In order for Knox to resume his multifaceted role, the Golden Eagles will have to rely on one or two other options at quarterback.
The battle includes redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly and Jordan Paul, a 6-3, 210-pound transfer from Gardner-Webb.
UC has yet to name a starter and might not before the opening game, instead using game action to determine the number of snaps for each player.
It could be a situation where one guy takes a hot hand and takes over, but we’ve got a plan in place,” Gregory said. “At least two of the three will be on the field in the first game.”
Knox said the number of capable arms will make UC even more dangerous.
“We’ve got some more quarterbacks that stepped up so the coaches felt like they trust them so I can go to receiver and play all around,” Knox said. “That’s going to make us an even more versatile team.”
Whichever of the three is on the field, UC’s coaches are looking for more balance from what has historically been a run-heavy offense.
Just last season, Charleston ranked second in the MEC, gaining 189.9 rushing yards per game, but finished a distant last in passing yards at 113.7 per game.
But those statistics may not be indicative of Gregory’s definition.
“We want to be more balanced, but I don’t view balance as being 50-50 as far as yardage,” Gregory said. “I just view balance as the ability to run it when you want to run it and throw it when you want to throw it.”
But whether running, throwing or receiving, opposing defenses are going to have to find Knox wherever he is on the field. Gregory said he’s constantly hit with ideas on new wrinkles to the offense.
“I can be sitting there watching stuff Ohio State does with Braxton Miller or stuff Auburn does with Nick Marshall,” Gregory said, “and I can go, ‘That looks like a good idea. I can do that with Johnny.’ ”
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him @RPritt on twitter.