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Freshman Griz K Steps into Big Shoes Left by Predecessor
It’s tough enough when you’re the new guy and you have to step into a situation with big shoes to fill.
But when those shoes are used to boot field goals in front of thousands of people, just lacing ‘em up takes on a significant level of fear.
Fear, meet Brody McKnight.
McKnight is the just-barely 19-year-old from Vancouver, British Columbia, who found himself in the middle of the maelstrom when he transferred from Purdue to Montana this year to play football for the Grizzlies.
The redshirt freshman wiggled his toes and decided to give it a try anyway - taking over for one of the best kickers in UM history.
All-American Dan Carpenter has gone on to make a splash in his rookie season with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, leaving a significant void on the Grizzly special teams.
“Obviously, Dan Carpenter was an unreal kicker,” McKnight said. “I knew about that. There are going to be high expectations of course. I knew I was going to have to step up my game to be a part of this program.”
After originally signing with Carroll College, a friend of the family opened a door for McKnight to walk on at Purdue in 2007 as a 17-year-old out of Vancouver College Preparatory School, an all-boys Catholic high school.
But after a year as the No. 2 kicker for the Boilermakers, McKnight knew he wanted to make a go of it somewhere else. Somewhere like Missoula.
He had been eyeing the Grizzly kicking job as far back as high school, following UM and Carpenter’s progress on the Internet.
“Basically, I had a chance to come to Montana,” McKnight said. “I was sitting behind a really talented kicker (at Purdue), Chris Summers, and I always wanted to be a Griz.”
That desire, along with the ability to be closer to home, overcame the reality that becoming the starter wasn’t even close to a guarantee.
The Grizzlies had brought in another fine young high school kicker, Russell Schey, from Billings West.
Through fall camp neither kicker had seized an advantage, but McKnight was left behind while Schey joined the team for the first game of the season at Cal Poly.
“Russell is a very good kicker,” McKnight said. “I think they were giving each guy a shot.”
In the third game of the season, against UC Davis, McKnight had his first opportunity.
He made the most of it, kicking what remains his longest field goal of the season so far, a 46-yarder in the second quarter.
“I’m pretty confident in my abilities,” McKnight said. “It was a new program, so I was going to be a little hesitant, more nervous. But after a couple of weeks I was more settled in.”
If he was settled in after UC Davis, the cement came the following week.
McKnight blasted a 42-yarder through the uprights with 1 second remaining to beat Central Washington, 38-35.
“It was just one kick, but obviously I think it was pretty important,” he said. “Given the situation, that made me a little more confident … it definitely helped I think.”
Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road.
Five extra points and a field goal attempt have been stuffed, some of which can be blamed on missed blocks by the line.
But McKnight continues to work on getting height on all his kicking assignments.
“I think the progression has been good,” he said. “But there have been times when I’ve kicked the ball very low … that’s part of growing as a freshman. Alex (Verlanic) has been doing an unreal job snapping the ball though, and I have so much confidence in (holder) Jeff Larson.”
“He’s a freshman kicker,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “There’s always a growing process. People’s memories of Dan Carpenter and Chris Snyder, the guys we had before him, were of their junior and senior years. We kind of forget to remember the early years.
“Brody’s done a nice job this year,” Hauck added. “ He’s getting a lot better elevation on the football than he was early in the year. … He’s done a lot of good things.”
McKnight readily admits to being thrilled at being closer to his parents, Kelly and Jenny, and older sister Kelsey in Vancouver.
It was his mom, after all, a teacher at his high school, who encouraged him to try out for the football team.
And it was his dad who, quite literally, provided a leg up on the competition by genetically supplying him with powerful pins and an education in booting a ball.
“My dad was a goalkeeper on the (U19) Canadian national soccer team,” McKnight said. “He had a bit of a leg on him, too. When I was in high school, we’d go practice and he’d be hitting 50-yard field goals. He could boom the ball.”
Apparently, his family is glad to have him closer to home as well.
“They’re crazy,” he said. “They’ve made every home game except Idaho State, plus Portland State and Eastern Washington. I’m very blessed to have parents who are so supportive of my football.”
And little by little, McKnight is becoming a more well-rounded football player, something Hauck insists upon.
“He’s become a decent tackler,” Hauck said. “He’s become a good tackler in kickoff coverage … we want to cover with 11, not 10.”
Not only that, but the 6-foot, 190-pounder even got to tote the ball on a successful fake punt against Portland State.
The play netted the Grizzlies a critical first down, and a fair amount of applause - and ribbing - from his teammates.
“It was the first time I had ever rushed the ball in college or high school,” McKnight said. “The first time I even touch the ball on offense, I get the ball at a Division I program, sprinting down against these big linemen, running for my life.”
McKnight managed to survive the ordeal, but not before fumbling the ball out of bounds at the end of the run.
“Yeah, I’ve got to work on my ball security,” he said with a laugh. “They were telling me, ‘Hold on to the ball, McKnight.’ ”
McKnight said he was pleasantly surprised at his initial reception by teammates, particularly for a freshman kicker.
“I wasn’t sure coming in because I didn’t know anyone. But the seniors took a lot of leadership; they made me feel like they’re excited to have me in the program. That boosted my confidence right away.”
If his teammates and Grizzly fans are glad to have him, McKnight is even more happy to be here.
“To be honest, I love it here,” he said. “The people in this program are so enthusiastic. The coaching staff comes out every day like it’s the first day of fall camp. And the players aren’t playing just because they have a scholarship. They’re playing because they love football.”
A passion that has brought all of them to the national semifinals Friday night at James Madison.
“When I came to Montana I knew that if you’re going to be a Griz, you’re going to have a shot at a national championship. The pride and tradition of being a Montana Grizzly is not entrusted to the weak. You’ve got to be ready to go.
“I had huge shoes to fill … but this is what I’ve wanted.”
McKnight fills void: Freshman kicker steps into big shoes left by predecessor
By John Smithers of the Missoulian
Photo by Michael Gallacher/The Missoulian