Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., and Harrisburg, S.D., quarterback Jacob Knuth scheduled a Zoom call to run less than an hour one day last February. It lasted more than three hours.
“We just kept talking ball and we just hit it off,” Knuth told the Pioneer Press this week. “It was a great time.”
The next day, the Gophers became the first Power Five program to offer Knuth a scholarship and within two weeks, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback ranked 32nd in the nation in the 2022 class committed to the U.
While the pandemic slowed the initial recruiting process for everyone in 2020, Knuth had in-state offers from South Dakota State and South Dakota, as well as Air Force when Minnesota entered the competition last January.
“The Gophers got heavy into his tape and started watching; they sparked it,” said Harrisburg head coach Brandon White. “It was a three-week deal where it was nonstop. Teams all over the country were calling and doing Zooms or whatever they can do. It was a whirlwind for about three weeks.
“They were the first big Power Five to really take notice of him and reach out and then it had some monkey-see, monkey-do to it. It just takes one.”
Iowa offered a ride three days later, then Kansas State. Northwestern and Syracuse were among others showing interest. But it was the bond Knuth formed with Sanford, head coach P.J. Fleck and a recommendation from current Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan that sealed Knuth’s pledge.
“They really did their research on me and I really made a strong relationship really quickly,” he said. “… I spent a lot of hours on FaceTime and Zoom in those couple of weeks before I made a decision to commit. It was really an opportunity I really couldn’t let pass. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if the opportunity got away from me, if someone else had committed.”
After the NCAA lifted its dead period at the start of June, the U scheduled two big weekends for official visits, this weekend and next. Knuth’s role as the QB and one of five initial pledges in the class is expected to be important for other prospects weighing Minnesota.
“I’ve got probably seven or eight guys that I’ve been recruiting,” Knuth said. “Just different linemen and skill players: running backs, receivers, tight ends. Just trying to build relationships.”
As a sophomore, Knuth split time as Harrisburg’s QB with an older teammate. “We decided to play some basketball (style) make-it, take it. If your offense was able to get a couple of first downs or score on the possession, you went back out there,” White said. “He really took that well and wanted to be the starter. Obviously, he is a competitor.”
His competition became a receiver.
Last season, Knuth completed 64 percent of passes for 2,395 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 305 yards and four TDs en route to the state championship game. Harrisburg, located about 10 miles south of Sioux Falls, has fewer than 7,000 residents but competes at South Dakota’s highest level, Class 11 AAA.
“We’ve never been able to knock off one of the Sioux Falls schools,” White said. “We were able to that early (against Sioux Falls Washington) at Howard Wood Field, on their turf, Game 2 this year. He threw for five touchdowns. That was a good point.”
Against Sioux Falls Lincoln in Week 7, Knuth led Harrisburg back from multiple deficits to win 46-42. “That was when we knew he was the real deal for us because he wanted the ball in his hands and he made some tremendous throws,” White said.
In the championship game against Brandon Valley last November, Knuth’s two-yard rushing touchdown tied the game at 14 just before halftime. While Knuth completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and threw for 301 yards in the title game, he also threw three interceptions and had no passing TDs in the 35-14 defeat. One pick went off a receiver, and Knuth took a risk to make a play on another one, White said.
“I remember it like was yesterday,” Knuth said. “Standing there on the field watching them get the championship trophy and we had to go collect the runner-up medals or whatever they were. It was a feeling that I never want to feel again, and I don’t plan on feeling that again.”
Harrisburg’s run-pass option offense is similar to what Minnesota runs, with Knuth required to make pre-snap reads of the defense. White said Knuth can make all the throws on the field but added he is working with Knuth on a few other elements of his game, such as becoming a more vocal leader.
“He’s a little bit of a perfectionist,” White said. “I’m trying to get that out of him a little bit because he’s hard on himself. I’d rather have that than the other way, I guess. He just has to understand you are not going to go 25 for 25 for 400 (yards) and five touchdowns every game. It doesn’t work that way.”
This offseason, Knuth participated in the Elite 11 regional competition in Indianapolis. He ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, and his testing numbers were in the 96th percentile at The Opening combine.
Knuth tweeted out his stats and Brian Stumpf, president of Elite 11, responded with emojis of a stock price rising. But earlier this week, Knuth wasn’t among the final 20 quarterbacks invited to the circuit’s finals. He has been given a three-star rating by 247sports and Rivals, but White thinks that’s because he plays in a small, overlooked state.
“I think if he was in a Texas or Alabama or wherever down south, I don’t think he’d be a three-star,” he said. “I think he’d be much higher.”
Knuth, who’s father, Mike, was a kicker at Temple, said he doesn’t concern himself with rankings.
“A lot of people say, ‘Prove people wrong.’ That’s not what I’m about,” Knuth said. “I don’t care what people say, I’m more about proving myself right and proving to myself that I belong at a Power Five school and I can hang with anybody in the country.”