By HANK KURZ Jr.
BLACKSBURG, Va. —
Demitri Knowles’ road to Virginia Tech has been anything but typical.
He grew up in the Bahamas doing competitive swimming and running track, and didn’t catch the football bug until age 14 when he attended a camp run by former NFL player Devard Darling.
“I always liked playing football in the backyard,” Knowles said this week, adding that he grew up watching the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes play on television. “I thought it was cool.”
Football also fit the athletic ability of the fleet-footed Knowles — and success came quickly.
“I won the MVP at the camp, and I got a free trip to Baltimore,” the 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman said. “So I guess my family saw that I had the potential to be pretty good, so that’s what happened.”
He joined a club team in the Bahamas, but wanted more. Knowing his opportunities would be limited at home, his father, Keith Knowles, wanted his son to attend a Christian school and Demitri landed at Lynchburg Christian Academy — mainly because “it just worked out that I had somewhere in Lynchburg to stay,” he said, without providing details.
But he adjusted well to being away from home.
As a high school senior, he caught 25 passes for 338 yards and six touchdowns. That by itself probably wouldn’t have earned him a look by major colleges, but his 100-meter state championship made him more intriguing.
Still, most interested colleges told him he would likely redshirt because while he had the physical gifts, his knowledge of the game was still in its infancy. He decided to follow that path at Virginia Tech.
Now, after a breakout game that suggested he’s ready to become one of the Hokies’ go-to players, Knowles figures to attract plenty of attention when Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts Duke (5-1, 2-0) on Saturday.
He caught six passes — tripling his total for the season — for 83 yards last Saturday in the Hokies’ 48-34 loss at North Carolina, and five of the catches produced first downs. He especially earned the trust of quarterback Logan Thomas with a 15-yard grab on third-and-13, and a 24-yarder on third-and-14.
“It’s nice to have him out there,” Thomas said. “He’s always that speed threat, but he also puts a lot of pressure on those corners where they have to keep backing up. Then he can break it off and be wide open on another route as well. He’s done a great job. I’m really proud of him in how he’s progressed.”
Knowles’ emergence in a season when the Hokies have struggled to find reliable threats downfield helped Thomas throw for a career-best 354 yards against the Tar Heels.
For good measure, Knowles also returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
“I’m starting to understand a lot of things, a lot of concepts, so it’s starting to click,” he said.
Thomas wasn’t the only one to think he was seeing just the start of something bigger.
“He catches the ball very naturally,” coach Frank Beamer said. “He’s fast, and he’s got toughness. Developing those skills, he just hasn’t played that much football. ... Big factor in that ballgame.”
Back home, news of his performance sparked a celebration of his big game, and his birthday,
“The last thing I heard was (his family) went to church on Sunday and they always have birthdays and what-not. ... And they sang happy birthday to me and ... said they would call me Demitri ‘Touchdown’ Knowles or something like that,” said Knowles, who turned 20 on Tuesday. “It’s kind of funny.”
For Knowles, it feels like a long road that is now paying off.
“I was always faster than most of the guys,” he said of his start in Lynchburg, “but in some cases, I wouldn’t be running as fast because I probably wouldn’t know what I’m doing. So all that came into it.
“But after a while I started getting more comfortable and performed like I wanted to.”
His first big moment in the spotlight came in the Hokies’ season-opening 20-17 overtime victory against Georgia Tech, when he caught a 42-yard TD pass to give the Hokies the fourth-quarter lead.
It was his first career reception, but he can’t pick between which performance was more fulfilling.
“The Georgia Tech game, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he said, almost sheepishly. “Also, in the North Carolina game, I haven’t experienced anything like that, either. So it was all great.”
And, the Hokies hope, just the beginning.