D.J. Knox wasn’t going to be putting on the helmet and shoulder pads, but interim head coach Gerad Parker wanted the running back on the sideline for Purdue’s October road trip against Nebraska.
The Boilermakers were 3-3 after a 14-point homecoming loss to Iowa. Darrell Hazell had been fired after winning just nine games in over three seasons at the helm. The Huskers were 6-0 and ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press.
To say Purdue needed some positive vibes was an understatement. Hence why Knox — despite suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2016 spring game — made the trip.
“If anyone knows me, they know I’m the guy who brings the energy,” Knox told Saturday Tradition. “I always tried to stay optimistic and keep guys’ heads up. The reason Coach Parker took me to Nebraska and on road trips was because I always brought the energy.”
Energy and toughness have always been strengths for Knox. Even though he stands at just 5-foot-7, the Fairburn, Ga. native earned a reputation for his physical style.
It was evident in the 2015 season opener against Marshall. Then a sophomore, Knox bowled over defenders on his way to 108 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. But it was the way he ran the football that made such a lasting impression.
Knox didn’t shy away from that style during Purdue’s spring season, even as he spent a year recovering from a devastating injury. In fact, when he touched the ball, he went searching for guys to plow through.
“There were days I had a hard time,” Knox said. “This was the first time I was at full speed. There were a lot of things I had to get acclimated with.
“But any chance I get to let guys know that I’m here, I’m lowering my shoulder and trying to go through them. I like to let them know it’s going to be a long day if they think they can make tackles on me.”
A year away from the field didn’t change how Knox approached football from a physical standpoint. And if an injury couldn’t deter him from his smash-mouth style, don’t expect anything to deter him.
What did change for Knox, though, was his mental approach.
Aside from the frustration that came with missing an entire season, Knox took his year on the sideline as an opportunity to study the game from a new perspective. He dissected plays, positions and situations in a way he hadn’t done before. Things were easier to process away from the heat of battle.
“I definitely felt like I became a smarter player, looking at the game through a different lens,” he said. “I was able to slow things down. There’s a lot you notice from the sideline that you don’t really notice while you’re in the game.”
After spending a full season observing games and practices, Knox improved in some of those areas he felt he struggled with before his injury. He became better at reading defenses and understanding blocking assignments. He stopped trying to do too much and now, he’s focused on his strengths.
Knox said he became a more efficient ball-carrier because of it.
“I’m able to recognize certain things, dial up certain things now that I’m thinking quicker,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to apply those skills into my repertoire.”
While the circumstances of the injury were unfortunate, the rewards of embracing a year on the sideline paid off already. Knox was determined to make a solid first impression after Purdue welcomed in head coach Jeff Brohm and his new, unique style of offense.
“Throughout the spring it was good to be able to showcase my talent to the coaching staff,” he said. “I wanted to prove that I was a coachable guy, that I was a team leader and I was the guy who was going to put in work every single day.”
Coaches praised Knox for his performance all throughout the spring season. While most of that attention was for his energy, his effectiveness in pass protection and knowledge of the game were applauded, as well.
For Knox, it was satisfying to know that he earned the respect of the new coaching staff.
“I wanted to show I was a well-rounded athlete and I was the guy they could count on,” Knox said. “I feel as though I proved that.”
Knox understands the learning never stops and there’s always room for improvement. At the end of spring, though, he’s pleased with the progress he’s made since suffering the ACL injury. And because of the year off the field, he believes he’s a much more polished back than he was in 2015.
“I’m a more mature guy. I’m a veteran now,” he said. “I’m making fewer mistakes and understand the game better. You’re going to see a smarter, more efficient guy in the fall.”
The energy isn’t going anywhere, either. In fact, Knox hopes his aggressive nature this spring will rub off on his teammates as the Boilermakers try and turn their fortunes around this fall.
“I stick my head in there no matter what,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Ja’Whaun [Bentley] coming in there at 250 pounds or Markus [Bailey] at 235 [pounds], you stick your neck in there and get the job done.”
Even though he’s back in pads and able to contribute on the field, Knox won’t lose sight of why Parker took him on road trips with the team last fall. The roles as a “player-coach” and “energy guy” are a fabric of Knox’s makeup.
Knox is determined to keep that positive voice, whether he’s on the field or on the sideline.
That voice, he says, is just smarter now.