Rick Cleveland

Undersized and overlooked: Why does Mississippi’s top football player only have 1 offer?

Mississippi's Tylan Knight (3) slips past Alabama's Kevontae Ruggs (22) on a punt return. Mississippi played Alabama in the annual Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Football Game at the University of Southern Mississippi on Saturday.
Mississippi's Tylan Knight (3) slips past Alabama's Kevontae Ruggs (22) on a punt return. Mississippi played Alabama in the annual Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Football Game at the University of Southern Mississippi on Saturday. Clarion-Ledger

Three things I don’t understand about football:

▪  Why do you have to be tall to run successfully with the ball? I mean, the idea is to make the other guy miss, right? Why do you have to be 6-feet tall to make the other guy miss?

▪  Why do you have to be tall to tackle somebody? I mean, if strength and speed are equal, why can’t a guy who stands 5 feet, 8 inches tackle just as well as someone who is 6-1? The basic idea of tackling is to hit the ball carrier low, right? Shouldn’t it help, not hurt, to start low?

▪  Why do you have to be tall to block somebody? To block somebody successfully, you have to have leverage, right? You have to, as coaches put it, get under the other guy’s pads. Wouldn’t it help to start under the other guy’s pads?

I ask this question because Pearl’s Tylan Knight, the best high school football player in Mississippi this past season, has yet to receive a scholarship offer from Ole Miss, Mississippi State or Southern Miss.

Last Saturday at Hattiesburg, Knight was co-MVP of Mississippi’s 42-7 trouncing of Alabama. This was after he led State Class 6A champion Pearl to a 16-0 season.

As this is written, Knight has one Division I FBS scholarship offer to South Alabama.

This past season, Knight, playing linebacker on defense, made 117 tackles, including 18 behind the line of scrimmage. He sacked the quarterback five times. He intercepted two passes, deflected 10 more. He recovered three fumbles, caused four more. He blocked two field goals.

If this sounds like he always was around the football, well, he was.

He also returned eight kickoffs for 223 yards before people stopped kicking it to him. He returned 33 punts for 380 yards. He scored 14 touchdowns, seven running the football, four on pass receptions, one on a fumble recovery and two more on punt returns.

Oh, and did I mention he attempted four passes? Yep, completed all four and two went for touchdowns.

With the state championship on the line in the final seconds against Starkville at Oxford, Pearl coach John Perry took no chances. He lined Knight up in the wildcat formation to take the snap and scored the winning touchdown. Why worry with handoffs? Just get him the ball.

“I knew he’d score,” Perry said at the time.

Here’s what Perry said Saturday in Hattiesburg.

“I knew he’d come down here and be the best player in the Mississippi-Alabama game. That’s just who he is. He’ll do whatever it takes in any situation.”

Two years ago, Pearl played its first season in Class 6A with a team loaded with sophomores. One was named Tylan Knight. In September, Pearl played a road game at Petal and Knight badly hurt one of his shoulders. Remember, this is a 170-pound linebacker. This was Pearl’s fourth game, and the Pirates still had seven to play.

“He didn’t tell anybody,” Perry said. “He finished the game. And then he played the rest of the season. Didn’t tell anybody. And then, when the season ended he went to Sports Medicine, had it examined and found out he had a broken collarbone. He played six and a half games with a broken collarbone and didn’t tell anybody because he just wanted to play. That’s how tough that kid is.”

Don’t tell me you have to be 6-feet — or even 5-10 — to help win football games in college football.

Dexter McCluster, one of the most dynamic football players in Ole Miss history, stands 5-8. Tony James, one of the best all-purpose players in State history, was about that size. Tracey “Pound” Lampley was terrific at USM at a generous 5-8. Damian Fletcher gained more than 5,000 yards at 5-9. Ito Smith, USM’s best player this year, is listed at 5-9. One of the best NFL linebackers I ever covered was named Sam Mills. He was 5 feet, 9 inches short and made more than 1,300 NFL tackles.

Tylan Knight is an inch or two shorter than all the above, but that doesn’t mean he is weaker. He squats 600 pounds and benches right at 300.

In football, he can do everything except be 5-9. And why that matters, I have no idea.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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