On the verge of becoming the Arizona Wildcats' opening-night starter at one cornerback spot, Jonathan McKnight has instead become their latest victim of a crushing knee injury.
The sophomore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Wednesday, landing awkwardly after jumping for a pass, and will miss the entire season.
"You feel very disappointed and sad for him, and for our team," UA coach Mike Stoops said. "He's a great leader for us and an outstanding football player."
McKnight - who was hurt despite not touching a single teammate - will have surgery when swelling subsides in the coming weeks.
Sophomore Shaquille Richardson will start for McKnight opposite senior Trevin Wade.
Jourdon Grandon, who returned to practice Wednesday from a sprained knee, will play the nickel back spot on passing downs, Stoops said, assuming he is ready by the team's Sept. 3 opener against Northern Arizona.
Since the start of spring camp, the Wildcats have lost at least five players to knee surgery: safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer, running back Greg Nwoko defensive tackle Willie Mobley and now McKnight.
Another, quarterback Bryson Beirne, sprained his knee in a scrimmage two weeks ago but has not had surgery.
Stoops seemed bewildered by the rash of knee injuries.
He said the Wildcats "haven't done anything to change or alter our schedule in any way" that would make practice more taxing on knees.
"There's a fine line as coaches, how much you practice and how much you don't," he said.
Stoops said the UA had "two or three" knee injuries that did not come as a result of contact, calling them "kinda freakish" occurrences.
"It's very frustrating, but that's the game, it's part of it," he said. "Kids are so much bigger and faster right now."
Asked if he'd ever seen such a spate, quarterback Nick Foles thought for a second.
"I haven't," he said, "but I'm sure it's happened before."
Foles said McKnight, who is expected to redshirt this season, is "going to be a stud here."
Secondary coach Ryan Walters agreed. The Louisianian had 12 tackles while appearing in all 13 games last season.
"I expect him to be better coming back," Walters said. "He'll appreciate the game that much more."
Walters called Richardson, McKnight's replacement, a "tremendous talent and a smart player," and Wade said the secondary has "a lot of depth."
Eventually, the defense will find some relief.
Stoops said Hall and Fischer should return between Oct. 1 and the UA's Oct. 20 home game against UCLA.
"Guys always step up in these situations," Foles said. "That's what makes great teams - facing adversity and getting through it."
The Star's 2011 college football preview section
• Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. Northern Arizona