By Jake Evans
Walking the halls as a high school senior in 2015, Dawson Knox’s next step was unknown. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound, unranked dual-threat quarterback was recovering from an ankle injury that he suffered in the first game of his senior year, one that kept him out for the remainder of the season.
Although his future was unknown at the time, Knox said, “I knew that I wanted to try to play at the highest level in college.”
Knox was a fantastic athlete, playing multiple positions in the Brentwood Academy offense. However, it was uncertain whether or not he could make that work at the collegiate level. Or if he would even get the chance.
Knox held offers from only three schools, Air Force, Cornell, and Austin Peay, and in Knox’s words, those few, “Didn’t seem to fit what I was looking for.” At the time, Ole Miss wasn’t really on the radar, nor did many think he could compete in the SEC.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze saw something in Knox though. Knox walked on at Ole Miss in the fall of 2015 and began to grow into the physical specimen that would be a part of record-breaking offenses in Oxford.
“After seeing what their offense looked like with Evan [Engram] out there, I saw myself fitting that role,” Knox said.
Soon enough, that lanky 6-foot-3, the 205-pound frame became a 6-foot-4, 250-pound SEC tight end that mirrored NFL stars like Kyle Rudolph, Zach Ertz, and Travis Kelce. While redshirting his freshman season, Knox witnessed Ole Miss’ first Sugar Bowl win since January 1, 1970, under coach Johnny Vaught. Freeze coached the 2016 season and was fired amid personal conduct issues in the summer of 2017.
As the future of Ole Miss football, Knox’s future was again uncertain.
Knox said that the transition time between Freeze and Matt Luke “was definitely strange…and we were hit with some tough adversity.”
At this point in his career, Knox was hoping to be Freeze’s new Evan Engram, however, with a new staff coming, there were no guarantees as to what his role would be in Luke’s offense.
However, during his redshirt sophomore year, Knox burst onto the scene, snagging 24 passes for 321 yards, averaging 13.4 yards per catch. At this point, Knox was no longer the lanky athlete that walked on at Ole Miss. He was a full-blown SEC tight end, playing a vital role in an electric offense that had five legitimate weapons in AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Van Jefferson, Damarkus Lodge, and Knox that combined for almost 3,400 yards and 26 touchdowns.
The next year, the story was similar, as Knox essentially played fourth fiddle to Brown, Metcalf, and Lodge, who combined for 2,766 yards and 15 TDs. That year, Knox racked up 284 yards on 15 catches, good for a whopping 18.9 YPC. After that redshirt junior season, Knox declared for the NFL Draft, along with Brown, Metcalf, and Lodge.
Going into the draft, there were many questions about Knox and what role he could fill in the NFL. He was a physical specimen, but his college production was less than what you would expect from someone with his athletic ability, in such a high-powered offense.
“When coaches would ask me why I was so limited in production, I would tell them that nobody could blame Jordan [Ta’amu] for throwing to the three freak receivers we had in Demarkus, AJ, and DK.”
Despite the lack of production, Knox still knew what he was though. He said that in multiple meetings with NFL teams he told them, “there’s a reason that teams are still very interested in me despite the lack of catches.” He added, “I knew that they knew what I was able to do on the field, and I knew that they liked it.”
If that’s not confidence, then I don’t know what is.
Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, many experts projected Knox to be taken between the second and fourth rounds. Right on cue, the Buffalo Bills called Knox’s name in the third round, with the 96th overall pick.
Just like that, the once 6-foot-3, 205-pound walk-on QB/TE had been drafted inside the top-100 in 2019.
Dawson hit the ground running in training camp with the Bills, giving himself a very real shot at becoming a playmaker in a high-powered Buffalo offense. However, the very thing that kept Knox from ever scoring a touchdown in an Ole Miss uniform, was now going to be his biggest asset. The competition.
In college, Knox rarely was the primary target for his QB, and he knew that. He didn’t compete against Brown, Metcalf, and Lodge for catches. He simply knew that when it was his time, he needed to make the most of it, because there was no telling when it would come again. So now, in Buffalo, Knox is in a similar situation, being the tight end in an offense with star WRs Stefon Diggs and John Brown, and an outstanding duo in RBs Frank Gore and Devin Singletary.
Dawson already has and will continue to shine in this type of system, where he can sometimes get lost in the frenzy. Last season, Knox appeared in fifteen games, starting eleven of them. He made 28 catches for 388 yards and 2 TDs, his first two TDs since high school. That first touchdown came in Week 3 vs. Cincinnati in Knox’s best performance of the year – 4 catches, 67 yards, 1 TD.
“It was a crazy feeling,” Knox said of his first NFL touchdown. “I had been wondering for a long time what scoring a touchdown would feel like, and it exceeded any expectations. It made me realize that I can compete with the best of the best.”
Looking forward to the 2020 season, uncertainty is looming amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. For every NFL franchise, all team activities have been halted, meaning that players are on their own to complete offseason training. As of now, Knox has been, “working out in Nashville, and spending a lot of time with family, which has been nice.”
Part of that family is his younger brother Luke, a redshirt sophomore linebacker for the Rebels. Luke saw time in every Ole Miss game last fall, making 10 tackles, 2 TFL, and recovering a fumble. Unlike Dawson, his brother Luke is a scholarship player for the Rebels.
“I almost feel bad for him because he didn’t have to walk on and he hasn’t had to have that walk on mindset,” Dawson said. “If he can stay hungry like he is now, he’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with.”
When asked about any advice he would give to his brother, who hopes to follow in his footsteps, Dawson said simply this, “Just grind!” He then added, “He already knows that, but keeping your head down and working harder than anyone else will prove to be the best thing you can do for yourself as a football player.”
The story of Dawson Knox from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2019 is something special. No big-time offers, no set position heading into college, no clear path, and no handouts. As he said to his brother, Dawson had to put his head down and just outwork the competition. He wanted to play at the highest level in college, so he walked on.
He wanted to be an SEC tight end, so he worked until he not only fit but exceeded the mold. He wanted to play in the NFL, so he went out and showed that he belonged. He’s now entering year two of his budding NFL career, with higher expectations than ever before.
Dawson Knox has proven since he arrived in Oxford in 2015, that if he wants something, he’s going to go get it. With a bright future ahead of him on a very good Buffalo Bills team, there’s no doubt that Knox will continue to carry that walk-on mindset with him, as he is simply, “thankful to get another year to compete at the highest level.”