Qwuantrezz Knight was only 7, so his father had to sign a waiver for him to play tackle football in the recreation league.
All of Tommy Knight’s boys played football. He reasoned it would keep them out of trouble in hardscrabble Gadsden County, on the northern edge of the Florida Panhandle, with the bonus of wearing them out so they would head to bed not long after getting home.
Little Qwuantrezz was not scared in his first practice with the Bulldogs. Roughhousing with his two older brothers had prepared him for the challenge of facing much bigger kids.
Instinct took over after a running back took a pass from the quarterback. Knight charged ahead and thwacked the kid so hard that an ambulance had to be called. A trip to the emergency room followed.
After sighing in relief that the kid was going to be OK, Knight contemplated the rush he felt from the collision.
“From that moment, it was just like a thrill,” he said, “like, yeah, I think I like hitting people, you know?”
It was the start of a greatest hits collection that would take Knight on one prolonged cross-country tour, going from that youth team to two local high schools to Maryland to Kent State and finally to UCLA as a graduate transfer “striker” in the team’s new 4-2-5 defense.
Some of his hits were so vicious that they gave him a concussion. At Maryland, punter Wade Lees watched Knight savage his teammates and realized upon transferring to UCLA a few years later that the Bruins could use that sort of ferociousness.
“In practice, you’d just see him hit; he was like a madman,” said Lees, who completed his college eligibility in 2019 with the Bruins, “and I just didn’t really think we had anyone at UCLA with that aggression that he brought to the field, so I just thought it was a match made in heaven.”
Lees recommended Knight to Ethan Young, the Bruins’ director of player personnel, and coach Chip Kelly when Knight entered the transfer portal after winning Frisco Bowl defensive most valuable player honors in his one season at Kent State.
He’s an early contender to be UCLA’s top defender and most buoyant player. His voice carries throughout the team’s gleaming practice facility each morning, encouraging teammates and coaches alike.
Hey, let’s go, we’ve got to have a day today!
Knight has seized on his mantra, making 1½ tackles for loss and a sack Sunday during UCLA's dominant 34-10 victory over California, when the Bruins (1-1) allowed only 176 yards of offense. The usually stoic Kelly smiled broadly afterward when he saw Knight walk into a room underneath the Rose Bowl to speak with reporters via Zoom as the coach was completing his interview session.
“Superstar now, all of a sudden,” Kelly cracked, slapping his hand.
As Knight’s mother sees it, he was destined to be unique thanks to the spelling of his given name. Ammie Knight added the “W” and two “Z”s to differentiate Qwuantrezz from other boys with the more common spelling of the same name, even saying it differently.
“His name is really pronounced KWAN-trez,” Ammie said.
Qwuantrezz’s early football career was also something of an alphabet soup; the young boy played quarterback and receiver in addition to defensive back. The variety of positions helped him learn tendencies and how to put himself in the right spot to deliver punishing hits.
Absorbing blows from older brothers Tommy Jr. and TaDerrious during games around the house sparked a fearlessness. So did his environment, a rural area with a high crime rate where the county sheriff recently called for a community prayer to help end gun violence.
“I come from the country,” Qwuantrezz said, “and you’ve got to be tough in the country.”
He showed it immediately upon his arrival at Maryland. Coaches told the freshmen that if they wanted to get on the field, they would have to do it through a willingness to play special teams.
“Qwuantrezz was one of the first guys to put his hand up,” Lees remembered.
Knight became a part of the defensive backs rotation, making one start as a freshman, but departed after three years following the heatstroke death of teammate Jordan McNair and the firing of coach D.J. Durkin. Knight enrolled at Kent State and might have completed his college career there had Lees not sold him on the idea of one more stopover, in Westwood.
“Once I visited here and I saw all the great facilities, it kind of motivated me to want to be great,” Knight said. “I think UCLA and L.A. in general, it brings out the best in you and makes you want to do things better.”
The Bruins’ revamped defense was another lure because the 6-foot, 195-pound Knight had been part of similar schemes elsewhere. Knight called his position that’s similar to a nickelback “controlled chaos,” a description that makes defensive backs coach Brian Norwood chuckle because it applies perfectly to a player whose motor comes without a governor.
Knight is full go even when he’s supposed to rest. Noticing that the Bruins’ punt coverage team was missing a player against Cal, Knight sprinted onto the field and took his place. At home on breaks from school, his father will often find him completing agility drills in the backyard in complete darkness.
“I used that time,” Qwuantrezz said, “to get an extra step on everyone else while they’re asleep.”
Knight called football “my everything,” having fallen in love at first smite. Ever since he strapped on a helmet with special permission as a boy, everybody on the field has needed liability protection, himself included.
“As physical as I play, you may have a little head injury every now and then,” Qwuantrezz said, “but I’m definitely working on being better at that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.