Heading into last week's game at Texas, Malik Knowles said he had one goal in mind: becoming comfortable, perhaps more mentally than physically, playing without a brace on his left knee.
Knowles, a redshirt receiver for Kansas State, had worn the brace during games as a precautionary measure ever since the injury occurred during the team's win at Mississippi State in September. The injury forced him to miss the following contest (at Oklahoma State) and play a limited role in the next two (home games against Baylor and TCU). In K-State's upset of then-No. 5 Oklahoma and a victory at Kansas in the Sunflower Showdown, he played without limitations.
But the brace didn't come off until he faced the Longhorns.
Knowles immediately showed how well he was feeling: on the first possession of the game, he lined up in the backfield on third down. He then ran a route, with no Texas defender shadowing him. Quarterback Skylar Thompson immediately tossed it to him; Knowles made one Texas defensive back miss and he was off to the races, not stopping until he had scored on a 70-yard touchdown.
Knowles went on to catch two more passes for 24 yards, ending with three receptions and 94 yards in sum in K-State's narrow 27-24 defeat.
Looking back on the score specifically, K-State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said that was one of the few "free ones" Texas' defense permitted. Knowles' catch-and-score was more the exception than the rule, "a bust" in the Longhorns' otherwise stout pass coverage.
It reminded Messingham of a play from earlier in the season.
"Malik got out in space one-on-one. Unfortunately, in that one, he didn’t make a guy miss in space," Messingham said Thursday. "This time, obviously, he did a great job of having a one-cut and the guy kind of flew by him. Malik’s long and can run. So once he got out in space, you had a pretty good feeling he was going to be able to go to score.”
"A pretty good feeling" is what Chris Klieman feels about Knowles' health now, a stark departure from a month ago. No, Knowles still isn't at 100% health. But he's close enough.
"He’s probably 85%, to be honest with you," Klieman, the Wildcats' first-year head coach, said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "He’s had a number of small things that have been nagging. I was pleased that he made a great play. He made a kid miss and took it to the house, and that’s something that’s been missing that he can do for us."
Still, Klieman said he knew Knowles "was sore Sunday and Monday." That's why K-State is so careful with him during practice.
"We need to be smart with Malik throughout the week to see if we can get his legs back underneath him," Klieman said, "because he’s a difference maker. I don’t envision Malik missing any time."
Messingham said Klieman's guesstimate on Knowles' health likely is sound —because the same could be said for nearly any player on any team in the country.
“Everybody, at this point, is probably a little closer to 85% by the time you get this far into the season," he said. "The biggest thing for Malik, quite honestly, is his ability to feel comfortable and just go play fast. I think, fortunately for us, he has felt pretty good, but he’s not close to ‘truly 100%’ but ... almost no one is at this time."
Three days after the loss, Knowles admitted he felt like a performance like Saturday was in the cards.
"I think going into the game, I felt like I had more confidence in myself," he said Tuesday, "and my running and cutting ability.”
Yet Knowles' focus is squarely on the present, and the future. The Wildcats, he said, put the loss to the Longhorns behind them Sunday. Now, they're ready to welcome West Virginia to town for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
Knowles is eager for it to arrive, knowing what K-State's offense still has up its sleeve.
"Every day, Coach Messingham is making up new schemes that (help us) get an advantage on a defense," Knowles said. "So I really think the sky's the limit when it comes to our offense’s potential.”