In May 2013, Knight landed in Haiti with about 40 other Sooners athletes, all of them there as participants in Hope for Haiti, an annual service trip. What he saw shocked him.
“There’s no infrastructure,” Knight said. “No buildings, just people and tents and tarps. You get there and you see how bad it is, especially post-earthquake.”
Knight and his teammates were there to paint houses, dig ditches, speak in schools and interact with locals. A couple days into his trip, Knight noticed a little boy walking down the street with a smile spread across his face.
“One of the kids was running around with an old bike spoke and a stick and that was his fun,” Knight said. “That’s it. In America, we complain about not having the newest gadget, not having a PlayStation 2, all that stuff. But what you realize in Haiti is that people find fun in the simple things. That’s one of the biggest things I learned: We try to make it so hard, and do it on our own. We lose sight of the fact that life’s supposed to be simple.”
That mantra -- remembering to keep things simple -- will serve Knight well in 2014, as he takes the reins full-time as the Sooners’ quarterback.
Former signal-caller Blake Bell is gone -- to tight end -- and head coach Bob Stoops said on Tuesday at Big 12 media days that Bell will stay there. That means Knight, who started just five games last year, will be the full-time option.
“If you dreamed about playing college football, you want to be the guy,” Knight said. “For me to have that opportunity now, I’m excited for it.”
But last year when he got that chance, it didn’t always go well. Knight played in eight games and finished the season with 819 passing yards. He threw nine touchdowns with five interceptions. Those are decent numbers, though the fact that 42 percent of those yards came in one game is startling.
Against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Knight shredded the Crimson Tide’s secondary, piling up 348 passing yards (32-of-44) and throwing four touchdowns. He earned MVP honors after the 45-31 upset, as well as the starting nod heading into 2014. But for comparison, in the '13 season opener against lowly Louisiana-Monroe, Knight completed just 11-of-28 attempts for 86 yards. So, which performance is more telling of who Knight will be this fall?
“Absolutely, if you get a big win like that, you get confidence,” Knight said of the Sugar Bowl upset. “But also, more snaps under center helped. As a [redshirt] freshman, getting into a new collegiate environment is difficult. I don’t think I felt overwhelmed, but I needed a little time to step into my shoes a bit.”
It’s easy to overcomplicate time on the field. Remembering to keep things simple -- and remembering that this is the same game he played as a child, even if the schemes are a little more complex now -- will be key in 2014. Two trips to Haiti (he went back in May of this year) have given Knight a better perspective, he said, and made him a better leader.
“Getting to share that experience with a big group of your guys, that’s a foundation for our locker room, that’s a brotherhood,” Knight said. “You’re spending the whole week with somebody in one giant act of service, in a different country, without your cellphone. You get really close with those guys.”
Leadership has been a buzzword for Knight for almost 12 months. He learned about it by studying Bell, who handled the switch to Knight with grace and class.
“It could have gone two ways,” Knight said. “We could have butted heads and been true competitors, or we could have come together for the good of the team.”
Bell chose the latter path and Knight followed. They got close and fed off each other’s play, according to Knight. Though Knight says he was initially “a little shocked” to learn of Bell’s move to tight end, he understood the position switch was partially a recognition by the program that Knight could be the next leader.
Knight can’t point to one moment when everything clicked, but he acknowledged a series of plays in the Sugar Bowl that helped boost his confidence.
“The first drive, we’re rolling and then I threw a pick,” Knight said. “It wasn’t a bad read, the receiver just barely missed the pass and it got tipped in the air, but it was a pick. Then, the very next play, we’re back in after getting a pick ourselves, and we throw a big, 45-yard touchdown pass [to tie the game 7-7]. The crowd went nuts, and it set the tone. We just rode that the rest of the game.”
They rode it into the offseason, too. Senior offensive tackle Daryl Williams said Knight isn’t a different person since his MVP performance, adding that Knight has always come across as confident. Still, Williams said “his confidence just hit at the right time” in the postseason.
The Sooners have limited depth after Knight, at least for the time being. With Bell at tight end, the Oklahoma roster lists a true freshman (Justice Hansen), a redshirt freshman (Cody Thomas) and a redshirt sophomore (Jack Steed) as other possibilities.
Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, who started seven games for the Red Raiders in 2013 and totaled 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns, left Lubbock in January and transferred to Oklahoma, where he hopes to eventually battle Knight for the starting job. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Mayfield must sit out this year, a move Stoops considers unfair. Because Mayfield was a walk-on at Texas Tech who was never put on scholarship, Stoops thinks he should be eligible immediately.
“I think it’s one thing if you’ve invested a scholarship in an individual and he decides to leave, but a guy that you haven’t invested a scholarship in, I don’t know why that would be an issue,” Stoops said. “It’s something we’re working through.”
Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury disagrees.
“I don’t believe [Mayfield] should play right away,” Kingsbury said on Tuesday. “I talked with his father about putting him on a scholarship in the spring. We invested a lot of time and reps into that young man and held him to the same standard as a scholarship athlete.”
On Monday, Kingsbury said Texas Tech’s decision to not release Mayfield to Oklahoma was simply “team policy.”
Mayfield is currently a walk-on at Oklahoma and will remain one through the fall semester, per NCAA transfer rules. Mayfield has appealed the decision and is awaiting word from the organization.
That means all the Sooners can count on right now is Knight -- and what he needs to count on is a simple lesson he learned in another country.