While walking the hallways in between classes, Nixa’s Connor Knatcal has quickly discovered the spotlight shines ever so brighter on the starting quarterback.
“I've started talking to people I used to never talk to, that's part of it I guess,” he said.
Knatcal went from an unknown backup to a glorified star ever since showing off his right arm for the first time to the public four weeks ago at the Eagles’ jamboree. Over the first three weeks of the regular season, he has passed for seven touchdowns.
Knatcal had three touchdown throws in the first quarter alone in Nixa’s 35-point whipping of Willard last week.
Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to Knatcal and pass along congratulations. He’s been mindful not to let the dramatic surge in his popularity cloud his judgement.
“I’ve stayed humble when everyone is saying, 'Good game,’” he said. “I don't want to get too happy or too low, just stay humble and keep doing the work that got me here.”
Knatcal got to this point by exhibiting exceptional perseverance, toiling as a backup for not one, not two, not three, but four straight seasons in junior high and high school. The odds of him ever taking significant snaps behind center didn’t look good when classmate Austin McCracken emerged last year by throwing for a single-game school-record four touchdowns in his first varsity start.
All along, though, Knatcal stayed on course.
“I only started playing quarterback in the seventh grade. Before that, I played football but didn't take it seriously,” he said. “I’ve always been second-string, but have kept working and finally it's paid off.”
Indeed, if backups anywhere want an inspirational story, this is it.
Once Knatcal steered his attention to football in the seventh grade, he has had faith in his abilities. So, too, has his father.
“My Dad has helped me a lot,” Knatcal said. “He's always motivated me and kept me going. He has spent quite a bit of money sending me to camps and for training.”
Knatcal credits the instruction he’s received at camps for refining his mechanics. He’s not just a strong-armed gunslinger.
“At the camps I've worked on mechanics. The camps have made me who I am,” he said.
“I was training with Connor this summer and I could see his progress,” running back Spencer Ward said. “He has stepped up.”
It’s also no doubt helped Knatcal that he and Nixa’s receivers are a perfect fit. McCracken, Kael Combs and Jordyn Turner all have the speed and quickness to free themselves on deep routes.
Combs already has five touchdown catches.
“Kael is always open. I don't know how he does it,” Knatcal said. “All our receivers are so athletic. I love throwing the deep ball to them. That's something I've always been good at. I've always had a big arm.”
“With the receivers we have, we need to be able to throw the ball downfield,” coach John Perry said.
Knatcal doesn’t forget his offensive linemen. After the win over Willard, he made a point to hug each of them as the Eagles left the field.
“I love them and hang out with them all the time,” he said. “We go out to eat and I've had them over at my house to hang out by the pool and do stuff like that.”
“He knows where his bread and butter is,” Perry said. “What he’s gotten better at is being more comfortable in the pocket and trusting the guys in front of him to protect him.
“There were several mistakes made (against Willard) from the quarterback position,” Perry added. “There were a couple of times in which he lost track of what down it was. On fourth and seven, we had a curl route called and he swung it out in the flat because he lost track of what down it was. But what I’m happy about is he looks comfortable. He’s growing and wants to be great.”
Knatcal’s progress is why Perry now has him taking all the snaps from center. Initially, Knatcal and McCracken were rotating at quarterback.
Knatcal said he has felt more at ease since knowing the job is his.
“It's nice to be able to know I'm going to be in, that it's not going to be where I'm in and out all the time,” he said. “I can get in a groove and flow with it.”