HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ Jaylen Knight loves his Oak Grove football, so he was not about to let some dumb injury keep him sidelined during the Warriors’ deep playoff run in 2018.
“I felt like I could play a little bit and it was the playoffs and we were playing to go to state, and I was like, ‘I can’t miss this,’” Knight said. “I had to get back out there.”
And Knight did, resuming his duties as a slightly undersized but nonetheless hard-hitting safety in the middle of the Oak Grove defense as the Warriors won South State before falling 31-27 to Horn Lake in the Class 6A state championship game.
So, what was lingering injury that had nagged Knight for the better part of his junior season?
“Well, I had torn a ligament in my left ankle,” Knight said. “So, yeah, that was it.”
Knight said he didn’t feel 100 percent right, didn’t feel like himself, until February. The championship football game was in early, early December.
Yet, Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said he was not a bit surprised when Knight asked to play.
“He wants the best for Oak Grove,” Causey said. “He’s a guy everybody looks up to. He works hard every day, and everybody loves him to death.
“He’s just a heckuva defensive back. He’s been a three-year starter for us. Just a heckuva football player.”
Knight is one of a handful of defensive starters from an Oak Grove team that ripped off a 12-3 record in 2018 and went toe-to-toe with Horn Lake.
But the Warriors also lost plenty, including its entire starting defensive line and both cornerbacks. On the other side of the ball, the Warriors have to replace the nigh-irreplaceable, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.
“Everybody loses a lot every year, but we lost probably the best player in the state,” Causey said. “But we’ve got to have guys step up and be better leaders. We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to do everything a little bit better than we have in the past few years.
“Now, if we do all those things, I like our football team and we’ll see where it goes.”
Causey said three players will compete for the starting job: senior Damon Stewart; junior Jackson Allen; and sophomore Kabe Barnett.
“Once we put pads on, we’ll get closer to finding out who that guy is,” Causey said. “But I’m very happy with all three of them. All three of them have worked very hard this summer, and I’ve got confidence in all of them.”
Knight says people may underestimate the Warriors because of the talent that left with a 33-man senior class.
“We have a good team right now, and we’re going to get better once everything settles in,” Knight said. “Once we get the quarterbacks figured out, everything’s going to come together.
“People say we lost a lot last year, but they don’t realize what those guys left here with us. We’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
Which means, in part, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Knight rolling downhill to deliver a lick.
“He just loves to hit,” Causey said. “He likes to come down there and hit somebody. There’re a couple times where he’s hurt himself doing that, but he’s definitely a guy we love to see out there. He’s a linebacker who plays safety.”
Knight said the comeback has been a little goofy, worrying about whether he would be able to do again what he had been able to do before.
But he said his intent is to make his final year in the Warriors’ black-and-gold the best.
“First game, and I’m just ready to play on the new turf,” Knight said. “I’m ready to do it, my senior year.
“I’ve been playing Oak Grove football since like second, third grade I’ve been Oak Grove my whole life, and I’m ready to finish it here with the people I started it with.”
Oak Grove will kick off the season at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30, when the Warriors welcome Wayne County High School to Warrior Field.