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The choice of Zonovan Knight as The Wilson Times Offensive Player of the Year seems fairly anticlimactic given the season the Southern Nash High senior put together.
Knight amassed a school-record 2,054 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on just 124 carries for an average of 16.6 yards per carry. He also returned six kickoffs and two punts, when opponents failed to kick the ball away from him, and averaged 49.5 yards per return. One kickoff he returned to the end zone and both punt returns went for TDs.
For good measure, he had three of the Firebirds’ 22 total receptions for three yards and, oh yeah, another TD. That means Knight, who will enroll at North Carolina State University in a few weeks after graduating early, scored a TD every 4.5 times he touched the ball and finished with 2,489 all-purpose yards.
Along the way, Knight, who shared the Times Offensive Player of the Year honor with teammate Kendrick Bell in 2017, set a Firebirds career rushing record of 5,073 yards.
The only thing Knight didn’t do is what he wanted the most — win a state championship. He and backfield mate Quinton Cooley led Southern Nash to 10 straight wins and a third consecutive unbeaten 3-A Big East Conference run. However, disaster struck in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs as Knight exited late in the first quarter with a severe ankle sprain and watched from the bench as the Firebirds fell 57-56 to Eastern Alamance.
“We didn’t get to where we needed to be, but overall, I feel like I did everything that I set a goal to do, like all-time leading rusher and single-season leading rusher,” Knight said. “All things I wanted to do since I got to high school.”
Knight’s ability to make opposing defenders seem as though they are in slow motion and his natural instincts as a runner made for one highlight after another. Knight himself was at a loss to explain his success.
“I don’t know how to answer that except that this is God’s doing,” he said. “This is the ability that He blessed me with and I’m just doing everything I can to take advantage of it.
“The kind of mindset that I have is just not to get tackled, so everything I do is instinct. So I guess that’s kind of how my brain works.”
Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said it’s not just natural ability that has set Knight apart.
“What he does that carries over to the other guys is that he believes in his coaches,” Foster said, noting how many adjustments his staff had to make going into the season due to graduation losses and during the season after injuries ransacked the starting lineup.
“I think the other kids see through him how much we believe in what we do here. He could be at any school carrying the ball 30 times a game. He could have left after his freshman year, but I think he believes in what we do and he believes in being unselfish.”
Cooley, who ran for 1,756 yards, confirmed that Knight was as good a blocker as he was a running back.
“Yes, he was!” Cooley said. “You can get a lot of yards behind him. I blocked my tail off for him and he would do the same for me. He’s like my brother going through war.”
Knight, who was the Firebirds’ only returning starter on offense, praised his line as well as the coaches for finding the right fit.
“I ain’t going to lie, I was kind of worried because I didn’t know if — like, we had so many JV people that I didn’t know if they were going to right to be starting and to uphold the standard of how we did last year,” he said. “So after Green Hope, the first game of the season, that’s when I realized that.”
And he was off to the races again.