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NFL Draft

NC State’s Zonovan Knight Primed To Be A Breakout Star

  • The Draft Network
  • June 20, 2021
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Over the last three years, the conversation around the top ACC running back started with Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and rightfully so. He just wrapped up one of the most productive careers in college football history, rushing 468 times for 4,952 yards and 70 touchdowns with 102 receptions for 1,155 yards and eight receiving touchdowns. He’s now the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, a record previously held by Ted Brown of NC State that stood since 1978. Etienne is only the sixth ever player in FBS history to rush for 70 career touchdowns and is seventh all-time in FBS scoring history. 

But with Etienne now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the opportunity is there for another player to stake a claim as the top back in the ACC and my favorite to do so is NC State’s Zonovan Knight. 

Knight is no stranger to Wolfpack fans. He’s led the team in rushing in each of the last two seasons, including in 2019 as a true freshman. NC State likes to get multiple running backs involved, so 745 yards in 2019 and 788 yards in 2020 were enough to lead the team. With that said, Knight has the type of skill set to command a larger workload than the 11.6 carries per game he averaged over his first two seasons.

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Knight is an explosive and physical runner with excellent balance. I love how he blends patience with decisiveness, understanding when to commit and when he needs to allow more time for blocks to develop. But once he goes, his acceleration to and through the hole is outstanding. He is excellent at working off blocks and stringing together moves. 

Knight is a highly competitive runner and he battles for every inch on the field. He frequently wiggles out of tackle attempts and angles himself well to take on contact so he can maximize his opportunities to produce after contact. Even when he is in high-traffic areas with junk around his feet, Knight is comfortable navigating and he just has terrific spatial awareness and natural feel as a ball carrier.

Knight averaged 5.5 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons at NC State, which speaks to his consistency as a runner. According to Pro Football Focus, Knight finished tied for fourth in the FBS in forced missed tackles per carry in 2020 at .34. 

Knight is also potent in the passing game. There are plenty of instances on tape where he cleanly catches the football in stride and gets to work after the catch. He’s hauled in 27 receptions so far in his career and I’m hoping for it to be a bigger part of his role moving forward. For that to happen, Knight needs to become even more consistent with his hands, as he is guilty of some disappointing drops. It will also help for him to add more branches to his route tree and solidify his ability in pass protection to keep him on the field on every down and in every situation. 

In addition to his skill set, a big reason why I believe Knight is primed for a monster season is because of the offensive infrastructure at NC State. An experienced offensive line returns with two standouts in left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and center Grant Gibson. Ekwonu is arguably the best run-blocking offensive lineman in the country and he routinely blasts open running lanes. Gibson is a total stud at center and his lateral quickness and competitive toughness are perfect for widening lanes in the Wolfpack’s zone rushing attack. 

While the quarterback position has yet to be solidified post-Ryan Finley, I really like Devin Leary’s chances to emerge in 2021. Injuries derailed him in 2020, but he demonstrated clear growth from 2019 and his performance against Pittsburgh was masterful. He’s an ascending player with all three of the Wolfpack’s leading receivers from 2020 returning in Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas, and Devin Carter. 

Knight fits wonderfully within this offense and is primed to be an even bigger part of it in 2021, something he is quite familiar doing dating back to his time at Southern Nash High School. He finished as Southern Nash’s all-time leading rusher with 5,073 yards and 71 rushing touchdowns. He compiled 6,007 all-purpose yards and 80 touchdowns. As a senior, he averaged an astonishing 16.6 yards per carry on more than 120 attempts. 

The ACC running back landscape is expected to shift considerably in 2021. Not only is Etienne in the NFL, so is Michael Carter, Khalil Herbert, Javonte Williams, and Javian Hawkins. Outside of Duke’s Mataeo Durant at No. 5, the aforementioned names were the top six leading rushers in the ACC in 2021. I expect Knight to be among the leaders when it’s all said and done in 2021. His skill set and opportunity at NC State makes Knight primed to be among the breakout stars in college football this season.

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