When the ACC released its all-conference preseason team, N.C. State running back Zonovan ‘Bam’ Knight was voted as one of the two top running backs in the conference — not bad for a guy who questioned if he could even adjust to the college game a few years ago.

If you’ve seen Knight run the football, that seems like crazy talk. The Bailey, N.C. native led the Wolfpack in rushing as a freshman and again as a sophomore, and his performance in 2020 was so impressive, voters thought he was one of the top two running backs in the league.

This summer, his name has popped up on several preseason watch lists, including the Doak Walker Award (top running back) and Maxwell Award (top player in college football).

Knight ended the 2020 campaign by scoring at least one touchdown in the final six games, giving him a team-leading 10 for the season. He currently has the best yards-per-carry average in N.C. State career history (minimum 200 attempts) at 5.49. He’s on the verge of being a bona fide star in the ACC, and could set himself up to play at the next level if he keeps progressing.

Two years ago, though, he didn’t know if he would make it through his first fall camp.

Making the adjustment

Knight was blunt when asked if it was hard to envision himself in this position when he first arrived at camp as a freshman.

“Honestly, coming from a Wing-T offense and a small town, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to adjust to running a spread offense and learning how to catch because in high school we didn’t really throw that much,” Knight said.

Offenses don’t get much more prehistoric than the Wing-T. It’s a system Brian Foster ran for years at Southern Nash and Knight thrived in it, running for 5,073 yards for the Firebirds and 71 career touchdowns. But that offense was different. Knight got down in a three-point stance and took a lot of tosses as opposed to handoffs. He was rarely asked to pass protect or catch the ball (only caught 12 passes his entire prep career), and those two obstacles had him wondering where he would fit in at this level.

He admits those are two areas of his game where he needs to improve. That’s why this off season he’s spent extra time at the Close-King indoor practice facility. He’s working on those weaknesses, as well as catching up for time missed last spring as he recovered from shoulder surgery.

Knight has goals he wants to achieve in year three. He wants to gain 1,000 yards rushing, improve on reading his blocks and become more reliable in the passing game. Ultimately, if all goes well in year three, he wants to put himself to possibly play at the next level. This will be the first season he will be draft eligible. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will declare, but it would be nice to have that option.

“It’s one of those things if I do have the opportunity to leave,” Knight said, “I don’t want to have any regrets.”

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N.C. State running back Zonovan ‘Bam’ Knight (7) avoids Liberty defenders on a 17-yard touchdown run during the Wolfpack’s victory over Liberty at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Ethan Hyman [email protected]

A real inspiration

When Knight first found out he was going to play varsity as a sophomore at Southern Nash High School, he went to Foster and asked what was the all-time leading rushing record for the Firebirds.

Knight shattered the record, and his numbers would have been even higher if Foster didn’t take him out earlier during blowouts.

Foster knew early on that Knight would be special, one of the best to come out of Southern Nash.

“He’s always stood out,” Foster said. “In middle school ball you could tell he was going to be something special. To his credit he’s kept working and kept improving and showing that he’s plenty capable.”

Like most schools located in rural areas of eastern North Carolina, Southern Nash is tucked away from the main roads. One could be driving through the backwoods on Bailey, seeing fields for miles and before you know it, the school pops up on you.

Located 35 miles east of Raleigh, Bailey’s population during the 2010 census was 569 people. While plenty of former Firebirds have played college football, Southern Nash wasn’t exactly a factory of future college stars or NFL players.

But there was one player’s name — a shrine, really — in the trophy case that Knight walked by every day that let him know college success and NFL stardom was possible: Julius Peppers.

Peppers, who was recently inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, left Southern Nash and played football and basketball at the University of North Carolina. He was the No. 2 overall selection (Carolina Panthers) in the 2002 NFL Draft and played 17 years in the league for three teams.

Before college and NFL success, Peppers walked the halls at Southern Nash High School. Seeing that daily pushed Knight.

“That’s exactly how it was,” Knight said. “Having someone like Julius Peppers coming from my school and having success in college and the NFL gives you a sense of motivation to know that the dream is possible and achievable.”

‘Capable of more’

Knight enrolled at N.C. State in the winter of 2019 and went through spring drills with the Wolfpack. In the spring game that year, he had a coming out party to N.C. State fans, rushing for 139 yards, including a 79-yard score.

By his own admission, Knight got “a little too comfortable” after his performance in the spring. When fall camp rolled around, Knight had three consecutive days when he couldn’t hold onto the ball. He called Foster and questioned if college football was even for him.

Foster says he remembers that call, but pointed out several players have made the same call to him after their introduction to college football. The veteran coach wasn’t too worried.

“You get a lot of kids that go out and have doubts in their first year,” Foster said. “You can’t fake what he’s got, it’s just a matter of believing in yourself. If it’s important to you it’s going to show. He wants to produce and be good for the people around him; his teammates, his coaches. He was the same way in high school.”

Knight’s talk with Foster worked. He kept progressing through camp and in the opener versus East Carolina he scored his first career touchdown. The following week, against Western Carolina, he had his first 100-yard game.

He’s had four 100-yard games in his first 24 games. His senior year at Southern Nash, he rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of the 11 games he played. When recruiters would call Foster about Knight, they loved to ask about his 40-yard dash time. Foster would just tell them to put on the tape.

“If they wanted a track star, I can give you his time,” Foster recalled. “I wanted a football player. He was a football player.”

That’s why Foster believes Knight has plenty to put on tape at N.C. State that fans haven’t even seen yet.

“He’s capable of a lot more,” Foster said. “I think he feels that way.”

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Southern Nash running back Zonovan Knight (28) outruns the tackle attempt of Green Hope defender Chuck Hills (3) during the Southern Nash game at Green Hope in August 2017. News & Observer file photo

Plenty to show

Missing the spring after his surgery in January triggered something in Knight.

Sitting out and watching spring practice made him realize he took playing for granted.

Now the clock is ticking. With the NCAA counting 2020 as a zero year, Knight could still play three more seasons at N.C. State. If he keeps improving, good luck keeping him around for two. Most players shy away from talking about their ultimate goal, but Knight embraces it, especially because it finally feels like a reality.

“Just hearing from experts and our coaches that I have good potential,” Knight said. “I’ve been kind of separating myself these past two years, so I’ve been trying to take the next step so people can see me improve. I know I need to show more and grow every year that I’ve been here instead of staying the same.”

He tries not to look at all the preseason stuff, but due to constantly being tagged on social media, it’s hard to avoid. Unless he’s asked about it, Knight says he rarely talks about football, never wanting to come off as cocky or arrogant. Foster said Knight is as humble a kid he’s ever coached. In the eyes of the kids currently at Southern Nash, Knight is already a legend for his video game numbers in high school.

While the competition is slightly better at the collegiate level, Foster knows a more confident Knight can really take that next step this season and really put on a show. If he does, Knight will one day play on Sunday’s and get that trophy case next to Peppers.

“He’s always had that goal and I think that he’s smart enough to realize he’s got the talent to do it if he puts himself around the right people and stays clear of people trying to hurt him,” Foster said. “I think for the most part he’s done that his whole life. He cares about how he does things and how he presents himself. For a kid like that that’s really important.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.

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