What was impressive about this practice for Knox was his consistency. On every drill, on every play, Knox knew what he was doing, where he needed to be and he executed to perfection. This was a breakthrough.
“At the beginning of this year, starting with camp, Coach (Willie Martinez) was kind of hesitant about me,” Knox said. “He still put me up there with the guys at second string, he always knew I could do it, but I just had to keep doing it consistently every day to get his trust.”
It had been a steep learning curve for Knox, but one that was expedited with the preseason injury to fellow safety Quintin Banks.
Banks was sidelined for seven weeks, which left the Bulldogs with Knox, sixth-year senior Andrew Williams and a group of inexperienced true freshmen behind their starters.
Knox showed some improvement throughout fall camp – enough that coaches felt comfortable putting him on the field – but his playing time varied from occasional substitute to sideline staple. Starters Reshad Jones and CJ Byrd carried the load – until last Wednesday, that is.
After his impressive showing on the practice field, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez pulled Knox aside to commend his efforts.
“He just told me, ‘John, you had a good practice, and if you keep it up, good things will come,’ ” Knox said.
That reward came three days later when Knox earned the first start of his career for the Bulldogs’ game against Arizona State. He finished with just two tackles in the game, and he eventually gave way to Jones on the field, but it was a good reminder of just how far a little hard work could take him.
“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot,” Knox said. “I feel like each and every week, I’m progressing, learning the system more an more, buying in.”
Working his way into a permanent spot in the starting lineup will get a bit more difficult this week, however, as Banks makes his return from a knee injury he suffered in the second week of fall camp.
Last season, Banks played in 12 games and was being counted on to be the veteran leader off the bench among Georgia’s safeties. Instead, he’s played the role of cheerleader while his teammates have picked up the slack.
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in a long time,” Banks said. “I haven’t really dealt with a big injury before, but it keeps you humble, keeps you knowing you’ve got to work hard every day. It’s a good and a bad thing.”
Taking nothing away from the job Knox has done during Georgia’s 4-0 start to the season, cornerback Asher Allen said Banks’ return to the playing field will have a big impact on the Bulldogs.
For starters, another warm body is a blessing for the two starting safeties, who have rotated far less than most of their teammates so far this season because of Georgia’s lack of depth at the position.
Banks brings a level of toughness to the field, too, Allen said, which makes his return particularly timely against a physical Alabama team.
“Q.B. is a great hitter, just a Greg Blue type, putting fear into the ball carrier or the person coming across the middle,” Allen said. “Byrd and Reshad can do the same thing, but Q.B. brings a more physical aspect to the game, and we need that."
Whether or not Banks lays any big hits on the Crimson Tide remains to be seen. Head coach Mark Richt said Banks is clear to play this week, but no determination has been made regarding how many snaps he’ll be on the field.
Even Banks admits he might need to take things a little slow at first while he shakes off the rust.
“My knee is feeling pretty good,” Banks said. “I’m not exactly back to 100 percent just yet, but if I just keep working on it, it’ll get there. It’s one of those things you’ve just got to be patient with.”
Banks hopes his patience will pay off the rest of the season, but it has already had a big effect on Knox.
While Banks was sidelined, he made the most of his free time to play the role of teacher – even if that’s something he was already familiar with.
Banks still hasn’t started a game in his career, but Knox knows his first start wouldn’t have come without the dedication of his injured teammate.
“Q is on me every day,” Knox said. “He’s probably just the same as Coach Martinez and Coach (Mark) Collins are on me. Before he got hurt, he was always on me. He was always telling me, ‘Do this, do that,’ because I was learning. In the film room, he was doing the same thing. Then when he got hurt, he kept doing it consistently each and every day.”