Harsin: QB hopeful won’t stay sidelined

JONESBORO — Fredi Knighten will have a place on the field at Arkansas State this season.

The only question is whether Knighten will be in the backfield taking snaps or in a slot position where he can run and catch the football. Then again, his athletic ability is so valued, Knighten could end up on defense in the secondary or returning kicks on special teams.

No matter where his coaches decide to put him, Knighten is going to play and he’s going to make an impact, according to new Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin.

“Fredi is going to do something,” Harsin said recently. “I haven’t ruled anybody out at that quarterback position, but he was pretty exciting in the spring and he did a lot of really good things. We hope that continues and I fully expect it to.”

Knighten, who is entering his sophomore season, is one of six candidates competing for the starting quarterback position in Arkansas State’s preseason workouts. It’s a competition that Harsin considers to be a wide open race.

As a former Parade All-American Knighten has one gift that none of the other quarterbacks in the competition possess.

That gift is the blazing speed that made him one of the most difficult players on the team to catch during spring workouts last April. It also made Knighten a very-highly sought recruit two years ago.

“I have a little bit of spurt-ability, or that’s what people have called it,” Knighten said. “Speed may be the better word. That’s the one thing that I can bring to the table.”

Knighten was timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at different camps before his arrival at Arkansas State, according to different sources. It was that speed that led to a highly successful high school career at Pulaski Academy and several state, regional and national awards.

Now, Knighten is banking on that speed to put him in position to be Arkansas State’s next starting quarterback. Knighten said he’s always been fast since he was younger and that his slashing ability has made it tough on defenses throughout his playing career.

“The defensive players always tell me I keep them on their toes, so I guess you could say that’s my game,” Knighten said. “Being able to keep the defense off balance and keep them guessing, being able to mix up the run and pass with designed runs and scramble runs and making plays out of nothing is what I do.”

Knighten isn’t just a running quarterback, though, and that’s what has helped put him in the middle of a heated competition.

As a senior at Pulaski Academy two years ago, Knighten had one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of Arkansas high school football. He led the Bruins to an undefeated season and the Class 4A state championship with a 14-0 record while putting up some gaudy numbers.

He passed for a ridiculous 4,557 yards and 66 touchdowns, completing 73.6 percent of his attempts (260-of-353). And, he rushed for 840 yards and 15 TDs while averaging 8 yards a carry.

But at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Knighten’s smaller stature has been a bit of a challenge as a quarterback making the transition to Division I college football. Knighten was Arkansas State’s backup to quarterback Ryan Aplin last year, but his playing time was limited and his success on the field sporadic.

Harsin and his staff want to see improved play during preseason workouts before they let Knighten take the steering wheel.

“Fredi Knighten is a real athletic player,” ASU quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan said. “We need to see him be more consistent in the pass game.”

As a freshman in former coach Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system, Knighten was able to work his way into eight games.

He only attempted five passes, completing three of them, including one for a touchdown while throwing one interception. As the season went on, Knighten’s role diminished, his contributions were scaled back and he finished the year with 140 yards total offense.

“Last year was a big learning process for me,” Knighten said. “Being able to stand behind Ryan Aplin, he was able to show me the ropes and teach me some things that I wouldn’t have just picked up on my own. He taught me how important it is to go in and watch film, what to look at and how to look at it. … It was a good experience.”

During this past spring Knighten spent the majority of his time working with the second string offense. He also worked in some plays at other positions, including at slot back in the running game and as a kick return man.

But right now, Knighten’s emphasis is quarterbacking ASU’s offense. It’s an offense he admits not fully having a grasp on, but he’s getting there.

As far as ASU’s quarterback competition, Knighten said he’s relaxed, but he will not leave anything to chance.

Knighten is going to have fun with it, give it his best shot, and see what happens. He can live with it if he doesn’t earn the position, but Knighten is hoping to make a good enough impression that he’s on the field somewhere in some capacity.

If that’s the case, it’s pretty likely there will some options available.

“If the quarterback thing doesn’t work out for me, I’m just going to try my best to help our team,” Knighten said. “If that means playing some running back, some receiver or maybe even some defensive back or kick returner, then that’s what I’m going to do. I want to be able to help our team win and that’s all that matters.”