WEST LAFAYETTE -- A back injury is a heck of a thing. Just ask Purdue receiver B.J. Knauf.
“It was like a bad ex-girlfriend,” he said with a smile.
It's easy for Knauf to smile these days. The lower back stress fracture that cost him all of last season is under control. He can run and catch and take spring practice shots.
That's good. Getting the chance to work with the No. 1 offense as a redshirt freshman is even better.
“It makes you feel great,” he said. “I feel like if you're not on the first team, you're not doing something right. I'm working my hardest to get with the 1s and do as much as I can with them.”
What can Knauf do? Consider he's a former Florida state 100-meter champion (a personal best of 10.7 seconds) who has run a 4.29 40-yard dash at Purdue.
That's some serious speed.
“B.J. is a guy who has tremendous speed,” receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. “He can give you a big play. My whole thing with all these guys is consistency. B.J. is one of those guys who has to take advantage of all the opportunities he gets.”
Speed is crucial when you're 5-10 and 180 pounds going against hard-hitting Big Ten defensive backs. He's adjusting to receiving nuances given he was a high school quarterback in Winter Haven, Fla. As a senior he rushed for 1,769 yards, threw for 861 yards and scored 33 touchdowns. He also had 90 tackles as a defensive back.
Purdue coaches were hoping Knauf could make instant impact last season, but the back injury, lingering from his high school track days, wouldn't allow it. Not even a back brace could help. He had to redshirt.
“One practice I popped it and it tightened up everything from my back to my thigh. I couldn't walk. It hurt to sit.”
Knauf spent the rest of the season rehabbing, sometimes as much as twice a day.
“I've got it under control, but that's what I have to do the rest of my career.”
Knauf could have a big role in new coach Darrell Hazell's new offense. He joins Raheem Mostert and Gary Bush as small, swift receivers who could provide a valuable change of pace from big, physical receivers Dolapo Macarthy and Charles Torwudzo.
There's no guarantee that potential will be achieved, especially in the spring. More consistency from all the receivers is crucial. Dropped passes were a problem at the early part of spring, and again in last Saturday's scrimmage.
Sherman demands more, including this Saturday's spring football game at Ross-Ade Stadium.
“Our goal is to finish spring ball with consistency,” Sherman said. “We have some guys with ability. We're trying to get them to watch themselves on video and learn to finish plays and be consistent on every play.
“It's all focus. Take your time in looking the ball in. Take care of those little things. Then just making plays. Do what they've done all their lives. Go make plays and be productive.”
Could the quarterback rotation – veteran Rob Henry, true freshman Danny Etling and redshirt freshman Austin Appleby are sharing the reps – have disrupted the receiver timing?
“Timing is critical,” Sherman said, “but no matter who the quarterback is, we can get to the depth on our routes, get in and out of breaks, create separation, win individual battles and make plays. It doesn't matter who the quarterback is. We're still developing.”
Learning a new system might have caused some of the glitches, although Sherman doesn't want to use that as an excuse.
“Early on their minds were tying up their feet a little bit. Once they see themselves on video and react and trust and learn their keys and their abilities, they can make plays. We've got to keep putting them in those situations and they have to step up and make plays.”
Those plays will include blocking.
“When you have a tailback like Akeem Hunt, who can break it at any time,” Sherman said, “you'd better trust your keys and put yourself in position to make a block down field and turn a 10-yard play into an 80-yard touchdown.
“We're trying to teach these guys that if you give great effort all the time, great things will happen.”
Knauf will take greatness, although just getting on the football field again is a big step.
“Anything I can do, I'm happy with: blocking, catching, running,” he said. “Anything is better than wearing a back brace on the sideline. I'm just happy to be out there uninjured.”