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Monday, February 26, 2007
Updated: April 15, 5:04 PM ET
Near Miss

By Bruce Feldman

June 2002 (55 months to signing day 2007) The courtship of Joe McKnight begins with a wobbly pass that floats in the thick Louisiana air during a 7-on-7 scrimmage between two New Orleans high schools. Its intended target is senior wideout Buster Davis from Walker High, the top prep receiver in the Southeast. At 6'2", Davis is tall and fast, but he can't shake the skinny, five-foot-nothing pip-squeak assigned to cover him. In fact, the baby-faced kid so frustrates Davis that when the ball finally arrives, it falls harmlessly to the turf. Years later, Davis, a standout for LSU, won't recall the out-and-up pattern he ran or the name of the kid who covered him. But for Davis' coach, the moment lingers.

"That's when I first saw Joe McKnight," says Frank Wilson, now the running backs coach for the Ole Miss Rebels. It was Wilson's job then, and still is today, to know every football player, big and small, in the 504 area code. He had heard about McKnight—in fact, he'd been hearing about him since the kid was a third-grader tearing up Pee Wee. But as he watches from the sideline as the aboutto-be-eighth-grader puts the glove on a grown man twice his size, Wilson sees this:

Joe McKnight is for real.

JAN. 31, 2006 (T-MINUS 372 DAYS) For three decades, Ole Miss has been known more for its pregame tailgates than for its football prowess. Ed Orgeron, a combustible Cajun with a threatening build and a booming voice, is hell-bent on changing that.

Orgeron, the Rebels head coach, is considered one of the nation's top recruiters, as wired for the trail as Martha Stewart is for the kitchen. It was on Orgeron's watch as USC's recruiting coordinator that the Trojans amassed the stash that spawned two national championships. Orgeron's former boss, Pete Carroll, calls him a one-man recruiting whirlwind. He needs to be so now more than ever. Orgeron's first season in Oxford has ended with only three games in the win column. First things first: Before Ole Miss can start talking titles, Orgeron has to narrow the talent gap between his Rebels and the rest of the SEC. So on the eve of 2006's national signing day, he and his staff are already focusing on 2007.

Wearing a red Ole Miss golf shirt and khakis, Orgeron sits with his staff at a round table in a hexagonal room in the football complex. Orgeron has scrawled his recruiting priorities on a dryerase board: 1. O-line. 2. D-line. 3. QB. 4. Safety. 5. CB. Running back and wideout are far down the list. Frank Wilson is the only one in the room who sees the six-foot, 190-pound McKnight, a star at both positions at John Curtis Christian High in New Orleans, as priority No. 1.

It's understandable. Outside the Rebels' war room, McKnight has yet to be ordained by recruiting gurus as a super blue chip. Like many uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, he hasn't been easy to track down. His family's home on the outskirts of New Orleans was ruined by the storm, and he had to split his junior year between two schools. When McKnight returned to New Orleans, a month after Katrina, he moved in with his coach because the only housing his mom and brother could find was a small one-bedroom apartment. His junior stats: an underwhelming 500 rushing yards and 9 TDs.

What the numbers don't show, and what Wilson has known since he verbally offered McKnight a scholarship to Ole Miss two years earlier, is that McKnight could alter the perception of Rebels football overnight. Wilson believes the talk in New Orleans—that McKnight is the next Reggie Bush—is no fish story. His quickness, power and change of direction enable him to score from anywhere on the field at any position at any time. To prove it, Wilson pops in highlights of McKnight from his two-game stint with Evangel Christian Academy. As McKnight zigs and zags, he hushes the doubters in the room.

Everyone, Orgeron included, is hooked.

APRIL 21, 2006 (T-MINUS 292 DAYS) Recruiting is like chess: Every move sets up another. Orgeron knows going head-to-head with LSU for possibly the best player from New Orleans since Marshall Faulk is a long shot. So he takes a calculated risk. He knows USC is recruiting McKnight, but only as a cornerback. Orgeron dials his pal Carroll and says: "He's gonna win a Heisman over there." What's Orgeron thinking? That stoking the Trojans' interest will get McKnight to consider leaving Louisiana. "I wanna help Pete," Orgeron says later, "but it doesn't hurt to get Joe away from LSU."

MAY 21, 2006 (T-MINUS 262 DAYS) At 5:27 a.m., Orgeron's black Hummer is the only car in the lot. Inside the war room, he jots notes on a yellow legal pad in preparation for the first staff meeting since his coaches returned from the road, where they've been evaluating prospects.

The 8 a.m. get-together begins with Orgeron deciding how hard to chase each recruit. For an hour, he prods assistants to chime in but does most of the talking. There's one rule for the outof-state kids, he says: "Any red flags, and we're outta there."

Soon the lobbying escalates and the hyperbole flies. Wilson wastes little time. "Joe McKnight is the best player in America," he says. "Laugh all you want, but we're in the boat with him."

"You really think so, huh?" Orgeron asks Wilson, who nods with confidence. "You're one helluva recruiter if you do."

It revs Orgeron to hear assistants talk like this. Wilson and Coach O have been a potent one-two punch in Louisiana, signing 10 players over the past two seasons. Wilson came to Ole Miss after serving as director of athletics for New Orleans public high schools. Before that, he was the 33-year-old wunderkind coach who transformed hardscrabble O. Perry Walker High football into a success story. Wilson mandated study halls and breakfasts. In one year, the team's GPA jumped from 1.5 to 2.5. "He made those kids believe in themselves," says state senator Francis Heitmeier. Such a man is a convincing ambassador on the bayou recruiting trail.

The Rebels are zeroing in on half a dozen Louisiana kids. Orgeron realizes he has to beat LSU for most of them, something he has yet to do for a recruit the Tigers wanted. No school protects its turf more tenaciously than LSU and, as Wilson says, the passion of Tigers fans makes it hard for an 18-year-old to leave. As much as Wilson believes he's in with McKnight, it's far from certain.

MAY24, 2006(T-MINUS 259 DAYS) The staff has gathered to watch three dozen tapes of high school seniors-to-be. Ole Miss has already offered scholarships to many of them, but others are new on the radar. An unheralded tailback from San Diego has two minutes of touchdowns that impress, but he looks small; maybe he'd make a good corner. A lanky receiver from Florida struggles to gather passes cleanly. "Look at the way he attacks the ball," Orgeron says with disdain. Four more prospects get picked apart. A star defensive lineman is "too stiff," a defensive back "lacks burst." The head coach is grumpy. He turns to his California recruiter, Ryan Nielsen: "Sure you wanna show your linebacker today?"

Before Nielsen can answer, Wilson cues up footage of his star recruit. McKnight glides across the screen as if everyone else were stuck in mud. No one touches him on deep routes, punt returns, kickoff returns or interceptions, and as a running back, he's virtually impossible to tackle. When the tape ends, the men lean forward in their chairs as if they were ready to applaud.

"He's better than Chris Rainey and Noel Devine?" asks Orgeron, referring to the top talent in Florida.

"Who's better than him?" Wilson says. "Go ahead. Write it on the board! Go on."

Coordinator of football operations Kent McLeod grabs a marker and writes words that, if they come true, will change the course of Ole Miss football: "Frank Wilson guarantees Joe McKnight—May 24."

SEPT. 29, 2006 (T-MINUS 131 DAYS) The secret is out. McKnight makes his national TV debut as Curtis faces the nation's top-ranked team, Alabama's Hoover High. The Patriots fall behind 14—0, then McKnight takes over. He gains 70 yards on five carries, grabs three passes for 134 yards and 2 TDs, and makes a game-sealing pick. Curtis wins 28-14. The next day, McKnight tops every recruiting board that matters.

Over the next three months, McKnight will be bombarded with phone calls and text messages. His monthly cell phone bill will quadruple, to $268. Everywhere he goes, he'll be serenaded with pro-LSU chatter. Wilson, having known the kid long enough to sense that he dislikes all the attention, gives a low-pressure pitch, texting only once a week. The tactic seems to work. "I like Coach Wilson a lot," McKnight says. "He's from where I'm from. We grew up similar. I like how he coaches." Then he utters words that every coach longs to hear: "My grandmother likes him too."

NOV. 26, 2006 (T-MINUS 73 DAYS) The Rebels beat archrival Mississippi State to finish 4—8, including three losses to top-20 teams by a TD or less. By 3:59 the next morning, Orgeron is on a treadmill, the season already behind him. The Rebels have commitments from five top Louisiana prospects, but Orgeron knows LSU is trying to turn them. He pounds the treadmill harder.

In addition to the risky diversion with USC, Orgeron has employed a more tried-andtrue strategy to sign McKnight: He's offered a spot to McKnight's Curtis teammate defensive back Colby Arceneaux. Arceneaux is 5'9", 185 pounds, and Orgeron "loves his toughness." He also loves that the two have been best friends since grade school.

DEC. 8, 2006 (T-MINUS 61 DAYS) McKnight scores twice as Curtis romps to its 21st state title with a 41—7 victory over St. Charles Catholic at the Superdome. Afterward, McKnight spies an LSU recruiter and sings, "Ain't go-in' to LSU!" He later explains he "wants to get away." But bad news for Ole Miss follows. LSU flips Drake Nevis, a powerhouse tackle from New Orleans who'd committed to the Rebels nine months ago.

DEC. 22, 2006(T-MINUS 47 DAYS) Most head coaches want to be the last one in the house, but Orgeron knows the Rebels must make sure McKnight knows Ole Miss cares. He's the first head coach to visit McKnight's home. Orgeron's pitch to McKnight, seated next to his mother and high school coach, is four-pronged: We'll use you like USC did Bush, he says. You'll be a feature back, not part of a committee. Plus, Ole Miss allows you to experience life away from home but is close enough that your family can see you play. And Frank Wilson, your position coach, will care for you as if you were his own son.

JAN. 4, 2007 (T-MINUS 34 DAYS) As expected, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio deteriorates into a recruiting bazaar, where committed prospects sway others to join them. McKnight is the top free agent. A trio of Longhorn commits dial up Mack Brown and tell him he has to get the New Orleans star. "They offered him right over the phone," says John Chiles, a future UT receiver.

JAN. 9, 2007 (T-MINUS 29 DAYS) A month from signing day, fans and coaches hunt for clues as to which way McKnight is leaning. He says he'll visit USC, Ole Miss and LSU. In Baton Rouge, they're convinced that McKnight will be a Tiger. USC fans, who birddog his MySpace page (which was plastered with photos of Bush), think he can't possibly pass up their legacy. Meanwhile, a Bama fan site carries a quote about Alabama's hiring of Nick Saban that has Rebel fans wincing: "He's Coach Saban," McKnight says. "If he was still at LSU, I'd be an LSU commit right now." Not everyone bothers with the noise. "Joe says we're good, and he's always been truthful with me," Wilson says.

JAN. 12, 2007 (T-MINUS 26 DAYS) The Rebels are banking that McKnight is looking for a comfort zone, which they believe Arceneaux and Frank Wilson can provide. The Curtis High kids travel together to Oxford and spend the weekend with the team, touring campus, hitting parties and eating with Wilson, Orgeron and the other coaches. "It was a lot better than I expected," McKnight says afterward.

JAN. 19, 2007 (T-MINUS 19 DAYS) The McKnight tour hits LA. Their host at USC is linebacker Thomas Williams, Bush's old roommate and best friend on the team. USC has invited several other committed prospects who know McKnight from the Army game to show the tailback the love. On his trip home, McKnight gets stuck in the airport for hours, and he doesn't get back to New Orleans until midnight. The next day, he declines to tip his hand to reporters. The process is draining. "These people have no right telling me where to go," he says.

JAN. 28, 2007 (T-MINUS 10 DAYS) Wilson is eating lunch at a Chili's in Oxford, while McKnight is in Baton Rouge on his official visit. Rishaw Johnson, the top lineman in Louisiana, who committed to Ole Miss six months ago, is at LSU with him. Wilson hopes Johnson will connect with McKnight and firm him up with Ole Miss. A few hours later, Johnson calls Wilson to say he's having a great time at LSU; he's seen teammates he'd been separated from since Katrina. This was not the plan.