LOS ANGELES -- Opportunity can knock when it's least expected. It was just two weeks ago that Sammy Knight was going through his regular game week routine as a graduate assistant coach for the Trojans, working with the secondary to prepare for the opener against Minnesota.
Then defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza resigned out of the blue, and USC coach Lane Kiffin put Knight in charge of the group. Knight technically shares the responsibility with Monte Kiffin, the assistant head coach, but it is Knight who runs the daily drills and coordinates the in-game responsibilities.
This could be considered an overwhelming assignment for a relatively new coach who was beginning his second season as a graduate assistant. But not much overwhelms Sammy Knight.
"He works really hard, just like he did as a player," Monte Kiffin said. "This has all come really fast for him; he played ball for a long time but he really hasn't coached that long. Some things never change though. He had great dedication as a player, and now he has great dedication as a coach."
Knight came to USC in 1993 and earned a starting spot that season against Oregon State, the first true freshman to start a game at safety for USC since the 1940s. By the time he was a senior, Knight was an All-Pac-10 player who long will be remembered by Trojans fans for his dramatic touchdown-saving tackle and fumble recovery against Notre Dame in 1996, which helped end the long losing streak to the Fighting Irish.
He signed as an undrafted free agent the next season with the New Orleans Saints and lasted 12 years in the NFL, starting 168 of the 183 games he played and making the 2002 Pro Bowl.
After retirement, Knight spent a year as a radio analyst before deciding to give coaching a try. When the opportunity came to take a GA spot at his alma mater, he jumped at it.
His ability to relate to the players on the practice field has been noticeable during his time at USC, as he is able to pass along the experiences from his playing days. The primary difference in his new role, however, is that he is now the one in charge of calling the shots for his guys.
"Coach Knight knows the plays so well, and he does a great job communicating them," redshirt freshman cornerback Anthony Brown said. "He was a really good player here, so you know he really knows his stuff. He pays a lot of attention to the details in practices, because when it comes to the games, he doesn't want us to make mistakes."
It also helps that Knight has a pretty strong support staff in terms of former coaches, friends and mentors who have been able to give him advice about his new job.
"I've definitely reached out in recent weeks," Knight said. "I talked to Dennis Thurman, Ronnie Lott, all those type of guys, just asking them about different strategies and different things to do. The great thing about the Trojan Family is that you can call on guys who were All-Americans and great coaches. It's great to have that."
Another resource he has been able to count on is Monte Kiffin himself, a longtime veteran defensive coach who is one of the most respected minds in the game. The two have a good relationship that extends beyond the playing field, and Knight understands the value of having so much experience at his disposal.
"The relationship is working well," Knight said. "I'm pretty much working with the secondary, but he gives me pointers on things I need to do, so I learn a lot from him. It's great, because there are things that I didn't know, that he can show me, in terms of preparing for how I teach the kids, preparing the drills. He helps me conceptualize my overall coaching strategy.
"My in-game responsibilities really haven't changed that much. I make sure the secondary is on point, make our adjustments and pay attention to what the offense is doing to us so that our players are in the right place."
Monte Kiffin looks at Knight and sees the one trait that is essential to any successful coach.
"He's a really good communicator," Kiffin said. "It doesn't matter if you're a head coach or an assistant. The X's and O's are important, but you have to be able to connect with the players, and he does that."
There are no guarantees for Knight's coaching future beyond this season but, for now at least, the USC defensive backs are in the hands of someone who has been in their shoes and who knows what it takes to get the job done the Trojans way.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.