Hyped freshman shows signs of being USC's next big star

PASADENA, Calif. -- So, let Jan. 1, 2008, go down as the day Joe McKnight officially stopped coping with being The Next Reggie Bush and arrived as the Trojans' latest star.

McKnight proved to the whole college football world that he does in fact have it. The USC staff never had any doubts. For years, recruiters have whispered about McKnight's skills, his effortless change of direction, his burst of speed, his preternatural vision. But for the entire regular season, that it mostly had led to some shoulder shrugs. He had run for 415 yards in the Trojans' first 12 games while dealing with fumbling issues for the first time in his life.

However, on the Rose Bowl's grand stage, the swift freshman tailback/receiver/return man finally had his breakout game. And, after listening to McKnight dig into his own psyche Tuesday night, it was obvious the game was just that -- a breakout -- in more ways than one.

McKnight ran for 125 yards on just 10 carries and added another 45 yards receiving in USC's 49-17 demolition of Illinois at the Rose Bowl presented by Citi. His 65-yard run off an errant lateral midway through the third quarter not only changed the game's momentum but also signaled to the shy Louisiana native that perhaps fate was ready to smile on him.

"My goal was just to get on it," McKnight said. "I figured sooner or later the ball was gonna bounce my way."

For USC, that bounce happened at a very opportune time as the 11-2 Trojans head into 2008 having found the offensive difference-maker who had been missing since Bush left for the NFL two years ago.

"The whole thing going in was we really wanted to give him a lot of opportunities [Tuesday], and he made the special plays that special players make," said Steve Sarkisian, USC's offensive coordinator.

The dazzling show wraps up what had been a disappointing first season for the 6-foot 190-pounder who was touted last year as the nation's top recruit. McKnight has battled some nagging leg injuries, homesickness, fumble problems and, above all, struggling with the massive shadow of Bush.

"It's really been a frustrating season for me," McKnight admitted. "But this is the kind of game I'd been dreaming about. I feel like this was my coming-out party. Everything was working for me out there."

Normally, there will be growing pains for any freshman. After all, even Reggie Bush wasn't Reggie Bush in his first season at USC. But for McKnight, because of his personality, the tough first season gave the USC coaches more cause for concern than it would in other cases.

This is the kind of game I'd been dreaming about. I feel like this was my coming-out party. Everything was working for me out there.

--Joe McKnight

McKnight comes across as something of an enigmatic figure. Those closest to him say he's not one to open up to many people and isn't very trusting. He is polite and very well spoken, yet often is uncomfortable in the spotlight. Still, he wasn't so shy, considering he had the words "I need $" scrawled on his eye black. He can be engaging one day and very aloof the next. He also can be surprisingly candid when it comes to feelings you'd think he might try to protect.

Sarkisian describes McKnight as "a very serious kid, really steely-eyed." It's a stretch to think the USC coaches weren't worried about how McKnight was dealing with the frustration, especially given that it was happening at such a high-profile position. After all, McKnight isn't the ordinary blue-chipper. He signed on with Heisman U., and he has been pegged, through no fault of his own, as The Next Reggie.

"You got to be excited about Joe," coach Pete Carroll said. "From the day we got Joe signed up and he was coming in, this is really what we thought he could become. Really through this preparation and again this month, we really force-fed Joe a bunch of stuff to make sure he could really be ready to have an impact in this game, and he's on the national scene now. Joe is the real deal. He's a fantastic football player. He's tough and fast and all the rest. He's really a difference-maker.

"We searched to find somebody to take the style of play that we had here a few years ago with Reggie. There's no question that Joe can do similar stuff, and he's a fantastic receiver. And as we work through the springtime camp, he's going to even have a larger role in things he can do. We're thrilled to have him. He had a great night."

Tuesday night, when most of his teammates already had showered and left the locker room, McKnight stood still in uniform and conceded how, yes, he did have some doubts whether this "coming-out party" would ever happen for him.

"Coming out of high school," McKnight said, "there were some very big expectations on me, but the coaches kept telling me 'Just be you,' and 'Don't worry about who other people are comparing you to.' But I was nervous before the game. This was a national television game."

McKnight said he feels as though this game didn't get rid of all of the frustration, but, he says, "I got some of it done. And I did accomplish one thing. I didn't fumble."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.