Miami’s new top RB Jaylan ‘Rooster’ Knighton ready to wake up No. 18 NC State after sundown

·5 min read

University of Miami’s new starting running back Jaylan Knighton said he got his “Rooster” nickname in 2008 from a former youth coach who saw him break a 70-yard touchdown the first time he touched the ball.

“I had a big old Afro and my Afro was red,’’ Knighton told Hurricanes beat writers last year. “So, that’s where the name came from.’’

Roosters, of course, use their cock-a-doodle-doo morning sirens to wake up anyone in their vicinity. Knighton’s own wake-up call will come after sunset on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. home kickoff against No. 18 North Carolina State — the nation’s 11th-ranked rushing defense and sixth scoring defense.

With veteran starting tailback Cam’Ron Harris sustaining a season-ending right-knee injury last weekend and talented second-year freshman Don Chaney Jr. out since mid-September with a knee injury, Knighton, a second-year freshman, will become the No. 1 back for UM (2-4, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) against the Wolfpack (5-1, 2-0).

Knighton, the all-time Broward County rusher (5,150 yards) out of Deerfield Beach High, was suspended the first four games of this season for undisclosed reasons, though a source previously told the Miami Herald it stemmed from a legal incident. The speedy 5-10, 190-pounder intends to make the most of his new opportunity.

‘Time’s not over’

In his first in-person interview with the media Tuesday, Knighton was asked if and what he learned from the suspension. “Just staying to myself [and] don’t beat myself up,’’ he replied. “Coming to practice every day, working hard, getting my teammates better. That was the main focus. Time’s not over. It’s going to be back one day.

“...Come to grind.’’

Knighton has 136 rushing yards on 32 carries in the past two games (4.3-yard average), with two rushing touchdowns. On Saturday at UNC, he ran for 92 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries (5.4 average). He added 73 yards receiving on two catches, including a 60-yard touchdown that brought UM to within four points of North Carolina late in the third quarter. The Tar Heels won 45-42, but Knighton was dominant.

“Whatever it takes,’’ Knighton said. “I won’t put a number on it. But how many coach got for me that’s what I’m going to give him. Every time. I promise. Every time coach call my number I’m going to execute.”

His backups will be meatier 5-11, 212-pound freshman Cody Brown (16 carries for 80 yards and three touchdowns), and 6-0, 230-pound freshman Thad Franklin (88 yards and a touchdown on seven carries) out of Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna.

Pass-pro challenge

UM will be vulnerable Saturday in pass protection, which Harris, who was seen at the end of practice Tuesday in a bulky metal leg brace, by now had mastered.

“You lose a lot with Cam in terms of the experience of pass protection, especially when you’ve got a young quarterback in there,’’ UM offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, noting that Harris was able to help second-year freshman starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who is still growing in his new role.

“There’s a lot that goes into it other than just running the football,’’ Lashlee said. “So you lose that experience, you lose the depth. You just hate to lose two guys that were expected to have a great season.”

Knighton keeps in touch with Chaney and is communicating with Harris, but is determined to excel in his new role.

“I pray for my brothers,’’ he said. “I hope everything is going great for them, which it is. I talk to them. But with this situation, yeah, I love this pressure. It’s just showing that once everything do get right, look how far we came. Just keep going. Execute every play, execute every day in practice, we won’t have no problems.

“...The main thing,’’ he said, “is don’t get TVD [Van Dyke] touched. ...If you can’t pass protect, it ain’t gonna really work out for you. So that’s something we have to conquer, something we have to achieve, being physical, being controlled — controlled aggression. Those are the main focuses. Once you’ve accomplished all those, the quarterback and everything will go good.”

Blazing fast

Knighton was timed last year during one of UM’s scrimmages running 21.9 miles an hour. He said he already has been timed this season at “22.8 miles an hour or 22.6.”

“Yeah, I got faster,’’ he said, adding that he works constantly on speed training with strength and conditioning coach David Feeley.

He described his running style as “balanced.’’

“People look at my size, but I’m physical. I’m probably 190 pounds but I hit like I’m 210. So that’s the main thing, being physical. Being physical in this game will get you a long way. I’d say I got a little advantage on my speed, my change of direction. I gotta start using my hands more, stiff arms and stuff, but those are things that are going to come week in and week out.”

UM coach Manny Diaz said Knighton was “outstanding’’ against UNC and to his credit “worked very hard in training camp, even when he was out for the first quarter of the season.’’

“...We are blessed with the guys we do have.’’

‘I believe’

Through all UM’s hardships this season, Knighton adamantly defended his teammates’ passion and togetherness.

“Yeah, we’re together,’’ he said. “We’re together to build our confidence. I believe in my brothers.”

Out “of anybody” in the ACC, Knighton said, “I’m taking my brothers all day. I believe in them. I’m practicing with them every day. I know what they can do. It’s just that we have to execute. We have to be more confident and it’s going to come.”

UM reserve linebacker Sam Brooks was not seen at practice Tuesday during the media’s 20-minute viewing period.

Several Hurricanes have missed practice over the past week because of a non-COVID virus spreading around the campus, Diaz said. On Tuesday, kicker Andres Borregales was one of them. He is expected to be back later this week before the game.

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