College Sports

Sound familiar? Daniel Kniffin goes from walk-on to Sacramento State’s starting QB

Quarterback Daniel Kniffin goes through drills during practice at Sac State on Wednesday, August 26, 2015 in Sacramento.
Quarterback Daniel Kniffin goes through drills during practice at Sac State on Wednesday, August 26, 2015 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

Sacramento State quarterback Daniel Kniffin smiles and admits it’s a little odd that an injury during his senior year of high school likely set in motion what will be his first collegiate start against Eastern Oregon on Saturday at Hornet Stadium.

Kniffin was a second-year starting quarterback at Rocklin High School – playing in the second game of the season against Oak Ridge – when he was clobbered along the sideline on the final play of the game and suffered a third-degree separated right throwing shoulder.

The Fort Worth, Texas, native returned after missing three games and ended his high school career as a receiver, catching four touchdown passes from Logan Webb, his replacement, in Sierra Foothill League wins against Roseville and Woodcreek.

While the shoulder injury ended college recruiters’ interest in Kniffin as a quarterback, his ability to run pass routes and make catches kept him on scouts’ radars.

“I had been getting looks from San Jose State, Nevada and a lot of the Big Sky schools, including Sac State and UC Davis as a quarterback,” Kniffin said. “But they kept telling me that I was too skinny – I was 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds – and they were worried that I might get injured. And then I got injured.”

Kniffin, now 6-2 and 200 pounds entering his sophomore year, said Northern Arizona, UCD and Sac State continued to recruit him as “an athlete” and made walk-on offers. Just a couple of hours before national signing day in 2013, Division II Humboldt State made him an offer to play quarterback, which he declined.

Sac State had a summer walk-on day and Garrett (Safron) was one of the players who talked to us and showed us the facilities. Seeing him and knowing all the stuff he was doing in the Big Sky only brought it home that I was going to the right place.

Daniel Kniffin, Sacramento State quarterback

Kniffin decided on Sac State for several reasons.

Former Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck lobbied him twice at Rocklin when Kniffin was debating between playing quarterback at a community college or risking not getting to play the position again by going directly to a four-year school. Kniffin also knew that Garrett Safron, an unsung walk-on who Sac State coaches considered playing at wide receiver or safety early in his college career, had won the starting quarterback job and was developing into an impact player for the Hornets.

“Sac State had a summer walk-on day and Garrett was one of the players who talked to us and showed us the facilities,” Kniffin recalled. “Seeing him and knowing all the stuff he was doing in the Big Sky only brought it home that I was going to the right place.”

Most of all, Kniffin didn’t lose his belief that he was a Division I-caliber college quarterback, an opinion forged in a youth passing camp.

Kniffin spent his high school sophomore and junior seasons participating in Troy Taylor’s Passing Academy. Taylor, the Folsom High School co-coach, had a brief NFL playing career with the New York Jets before cutting his coaching teeth at Cal. Among his former pupils are Jake Browning (Washington) and Dano Graves (Cal Poly), former Folsom stars and two of California’s most prolific high school quarterbacks

“The first thing (Taylor) told me when I first went (to his passing academy) was that I was too skinny, that I needed to get my weight up,” said Kniffin, who sometimes worked alongside Browning. “But he also told me I had the arm, the potential and the brain to play at the next level.”

Kniffin credits Taylor for helping making him a more confident and polished quarterback.

“He was huge help in my development – he’s a magician when it comes to quarterbacks,” Kniffin said. “He upped my mechanics. Before I had the big, long baseball throw. He really cut that down so I have a quicker release. He helped tremendously with my footwork.”

Taylor knew right away he had a gem.

“Awesome kid,” Taylor said. “From the first day I started working with him, I knew that he could be a Division I quarterback. He was tall kid with a strong arm and very coachable. He’d take anything we were teaching him, go home, work on it and come back showing that he had mastered it.

“I think he’ll be great as Sac State’s quarterback. I know he’s happy there. I’m excited to watch him play.”

By the time Kniffin stepped on the field as a freshman at Sac State, four quarterbacks from the previous season had departed. The “athlete” was a quarterback again. Kniffin redshirted as a freshman, then climbed his way past since departed Marcus McDade to become the No. 2 quarterback last season, working closely alongside Safron, who broke most every major passing record at the school.

While Kniffin’s primary job was holder for All-Big Sky Conference placekicker Brad Cornish, he took enough snaps under center to complete 15 of 22 passes for 146 yards.

7-5 Sacramento State’s record in 2014, best since 2000

Even though coach Jody Sears brought in transfers Kolney Cassel from SMU and Alexis Robinson from Baylor, and signed three-star freshman Nate Ketteringham from State Bowl Open Division finalist Centennial of Corona, Kniffin held his ground in the fall.

Sears said playing behind Safron and learning offensive coordinator Paul Peterson’s offense gave Kniffin the upper hand, and Kniffin played solidly in the team’s Green and Gold scrimmage Aug. 22. Kniffin threw for two touchdowns and rushed for a third.

“Daniel’s our starter,” Sears said. “He’s been in the system for two solid years. His understanding and knowing the offense gave him a leg up. Kolney Cassel is a solid No. 2.”

Kniffin, now on scholarship, welcomed the competition and knows that if he falters, he’ll be the one watching from the sideline. But his attention and focus is trying to help Sac State emerge from mediocrity.

The Hornets have not won a Big Sky title and have not been to the postseason in the D-I era. The team’s 7-5 record by a senior-dominated team last season was the best since going 7-4 in 2000. The Hornets have been picked to finish seventh in both the Big Sky media and coaches’ preseason polls.

“We’re not getting the respect we think we deserve, but in the grand scheme of things, what do they know about us?” Kniffin said. “We have a great defense led by Darnell Sankey, who is a beast. We’re going to continue to be explosive offensively and exciting to watch. I think we’re ready to get over the hump this year.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

College football previews

  • Sunday: The national scene
  • Monday: Stanford
  • Tuesday: Cal
  • Wednesday: UC Davis
  • Today: Sacramento State

KEYS FOR THE HORNETS

Linebacker leader needs to go the distance

Senior Darnell Sankey is one of the best defensive players in the Big Sky Conference. But the biggest question regarding the Football Championship Subdivision Defensive Player of the Year candidate is if he can he remain injury free. Last year, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Sankey had 99 tackles and earned second team All-Big Sky Conference honors despite missing three games because of a knee injury. He had a career high 21 tackles against Montana State.

Find an answer at quarterback

Departed quarterback Garrett Safron set all the major passing records for the Hornets during his star-studded career after walking on. But his biggest attributes were his natural leadership skills and warrior mentality. Untested Daniel Kniffin (Rocklin High School) will need to show similar command immediately to avoid the potential of a quarterback controversy with SMU transfer Kolney Cassel waiting in the wings.

Get freshmen up to speed

Sacramento State has 15 redshirt or true freshmen either starting or serving as the primary backups on its two-deep roster, including 10 on defense. They will need to adapt quickly to the increased speed and physicality of Division I football. Defensive tackle Wyatt Ming, defensive back Joey Banks (Franklin), safety Manny Scott-Anderson (Elk Grove) and offensive guard Ruben Meza are the freshmen penciled in to start Saturday against Eastern Oregon.

Inexperienced offensive line needs to jell

Sac State has had one of the Big Sky’s most potent offenses in recent years but did it behind an experienced line. The Hornets will need to jell quickly. Left tackle Lars Hanson (a team high 31 starts) is the only returning starter and guards Meza and sophomore Lake Aiono and senior center Anthony Viveiros are expected to make their first collegiate starts Saturday. Jonathan Bade, a converted tight end, takes over at right tackle and the oft-injured Stone Sander (Placer High School) replaces Chris Broadnax at tight end.

Capitalize on depth at wide receiver

All-American DeAndre Carter has graduated, but wide receiver Nnamdi Agude (70 catches, 1,156 yards, 10 touchdowns) returns to lead another deep and talented receiving corps. But opponents won’t be able to focus on just containing the 6-3, 195-pound senior. Shane Harrison, a starter in 2013, returns after sitting out last year. Dominic Coulter, Justin Cox the speedy and deceptive 5-7, 150-pound Isiah Hennie also return in what is arguably the team’s deepest group.

Bill Paterson

SACRAMENTO STATE 2015

football schedule

DATE

OPPONENT

TIME

Saturday

vs. Eastern Oregon

6:05 p.m.

Sept. 12

at Washington

11 a.m.

Sept. 19

at Weber State

5:05 p.m.

Sept. 26

vs. Eastern Washington

6:05 p.m.

Oct. 3

vs. Northern Colorado

6:05 p.m.

Oct. 10

at Montana State

4 p.m.

Oct. 17

at Southern Utah

5:05 p.m.

Oct. 24

vs. Idaho State

6:05 p.m.

Nov. 7

at Cal Poly

6:05 p.m.

Nov. 14

at Northern Arizona

1 p.m.

Nov. 21

vs. UC Davis

TBA

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