If imposing Sacramento State linebacker Darnell Sankey sees red Saturday morning during the annual Green & Gold game at Hornet Stadium, he promises not to charge.
“No, no,” said the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Sankey, who averaged a Big Sky Conference-leading 11 tackles per game last season. “As long as he’s in the red, you can’t touch him. You can’t go anywhere near him.”
Sankey is referring to redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Kniffin. He will wear a red jersey, which makes him offlimits to defenders in the 10:30 a.m. intra-squad game that caps six weeks of spring workouts. The controlled scrimmage is free to the public.
The 6-2, 200-pound Kniffin is the front-runner to replace departed record-setting quarterback Garrett Safron this fall. So the former Rocklin High School player won’t have to worry about eluding the hard-charging Sankey, a senior who figures to be a Buck Buchanan Award candidate as the nation’s top Football Championship Subdivision linebacker.
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“Darnell is always saying stuff like, ‘If you weren’t in red, I’d take you out,’” Kniffin said, smiling. “I know he wouldn’t hit me, but sometimes contact happens. It’s unavoidable.”
Sankey insists he won’t lay one finger on Kniffin.
“It’s smart that he’ll be in red,” Sankey said. “The coaches don’t want our quarterback getting injured.”
While Kniffin will receive the velvet-glove treatment, the hits are expected to come often and hard as players battle at other positions. The offense and defense can score points in a variety of ways.
The Hornets return 40 letter-winners, including eight offensive and five defensive starters, from a team that went 7-5 and 4-4 in the Big Sky Conference in coach Jody Sears’ rookie campaign.
Spring workouts, including intra-team scrimmages at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg and St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, have been intense.
“Everyone is trying to earn starting spots, so it gets heated,” Sankey said. “We get in each other’s ear, hooting and hollering. But when it comes down to the end of the day, we all love each other. We know the competition is going to make us better.”
Kniffin is the only returning quarterback to take a snap last season, completing 15 of 22 passes for 146 yards. But he mostly watched from the sidelines as Safron broke every major Sac State passing record. Kniffin has had two years to learn offensive coordinator Paul Peterson’s intricate spread offense.
“I got to learn from the best in Garrett Safron, and if I just execute what Coach P gives me, we’ll have an answer for everything,” Kniffin said. “So I’m confident and excited. We’re trying not to skip a beat and to improve on what we did last year.”
Sears has been impressed with Kniffin’s poise.
“Daniel has made an extremely strong case for the starting role,” Sears said. “He’s been pretty darn sharp. He’s been in the offense two years, and you can see it.”
Nolan Merker, a walk-on last season from Sheldon High School, and freshman Alexis Robinson, a transfer from Baylor who did not play football for the Bears last season, also should see action at quarterback Saturday. But Sears plans to hold out sophomore transfer Kolney Cassel, who played in five games and started one last season at SMU.
“He’s been battling a lot of soreness – sore shoulder, sore back,” Sears said. “We don’t want to make something worse. But we expect him to raise the stakes in August. He’s got all the intangibles. He can make all the throws.”
In addition to Safron, Sac State has to replace Associated Press All-America wide receiver DeAndre Carter, who led the FCS in receiving yards and touchdowns last fall.
All-Big Sky Conference second-team receiver Nnamdi Agude (70 receptions, 1,156 yards, 10 touchdowns) returns, as does senior Shane Harrison, who started in 2013 but sat out 2014. Seniors Justin Cox and Dominic Coulter and sophomore Isiah Hennie also return, and Sears also has been impressed with Trevor Wright, Jabari Johnson and Jaelin Ratliff, all true freshmen last season.
The Green & Gold game is part of a festive weekend for the Hornets football program. Sears has invited back to campus former Sac State football players and coaches.
Many participated in the Bob Mattos Memorial Golf Tournament on Friday morning at Rancho Murieta Country Club and Friday night’s reunion celebration at the Marriott Rancho Cordova. A team awards banquet will be held Saturday night.
“It’s neat to have all those guys who once played here coming back and showing their support,” Sankey said. “I’m sure that’s just going to make the scrimmage that much more competitive.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.