Chase Knox stood near midfield at Camp Randall Stadium during the University of Wisconsin football team’s recent media day and took a look around him.
While an argument could be made that the walk-on freshman quarterback from San Diego is the most unlikely member of the Badgers’ 105-man training camp roster, Knox doesn’t consider himself an outsider in any way, shape or form.
“I feel like one of the reasons that makes me successful,” he said, “is I feel like I should be here.”
Some of Knox’s teammates have been planning their official arrival at UW for a year or more, a few dreaming of that day since they were kids. Not Knox, who not only came farther than any of them (2,000 miles) but did so, in quarterback parlance, by scrambling after calling an audible.
Back in May, Knox had decided he was either headed to Columbia of the Football Championship Subdivision or the City College of San Francisco, a junior college national power.
“Columbia would have been the academic choice, obviously,” Knox said of the Ivy League school located in New York, “and City College would have been if I wanted to pursue Division I football.”
That’s about the time UW linebackers coach Andy Buh rolled through San Diego on a recruiting trip and bumped into Cree Morris, his old teammate at Orange Glen High School in nearby Escondido.
Buh mentioned that the Badgers were short on quarterbacks and asked if Morris knew of anybody. For months, Morris had been unsuccessful in his attempts to drum up interest among Division I recruiters in Knox, who put up great numbers during his two seasons as a starter at San Diego’s Madison High School.
“I talked to one of the coaches at a college out here and he said, ‘He doesn’t have a wow factor,’” said Morris, who coached at one of Madison’s rivals and served as the 6-foot-1 Knox’s private coach in the offseason. “I said, ‘That isn’t what he’s all about. He’s not about wow. He’s about all the intangibles. He’s going to do all the little things that make your team better.’
“I’ve coached quarterbacks for the last 15 years out here and Chase is my best student. (Buh) said they were looking for a quarterback and I said, ‘There’s a kid out here that has kind of fallen through the cracks, but I promise you he’ll do anything you ask and then some. He’ll be your hardest worker.’”
Morris wasn’t the only one who gave the UW coaching staff glowing reviews of Knox.
Former NFL quarterbacks Steve Young and Jeff Garcia, who had worked out with Knox in the San Diego area — Drew Brees was also a frequent visitor — placed calls to Badgers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada on Knox’s behalf.
“They were just talking about his character and that he deserved a chance,” Canada said. “They just felt like he was a kid that played the game the right way, respected the game, and even though he was undersized he still deserved an opportunity if it could work out.”
Knox didn’t exactly fly below the radar during his time in San Diego. After playing at Brophy Prep in Phoenix as a sophomore, Knox enrolled at Madison just before the start of his junior season in 2010. He threw for 2,547 yards with 30 touchdowns and five interceptions and led the Warhawks to the San Diego Section Division IV title that season, but the California Interscholastic League later ruled him ineligible for an “invalid change of residence” and forced Madison to forfeit 11 victories and its title.
Knox’s family sued the CIF and a judge ruled on his behalf, restoring Madison’s wins and championship.
“He handled it with class,” Morris said. “It was extremely hard on him because he was worried about how it affected the team. That’s the type of guy he is.
“He took it on the chin. There was more on his shoulders than a kid his age should have had. He felt horrible for his team that they had to go through that, but it all worked out and he was cleared of everything.”
Putting in the time
Knox arrived at UW this summer determined to make an impression. He became a fixture in the film room and was singled out by UW coach Bret Bielema following the completion of the first training camp practice.
“He cares about football,” Canada said. “And that’s why people spoke on his behalf.”
With Danny O’Brien named the starting quarterback, and Curt Phillips and Joel Stave competing for the job as UW’s backup, Knox has been leading the scout team. The departure of Joe Brennan leaves Knox as the fourth-string quarterback, though another California quarterback, injured freshman Bart Houston, is waiting in the wings.
Knox doesn’t seem intimidated by the situation. One of the best pieces of advice he got from Young, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, was to treat every practice as if it’s a game. That’s been Knox’s mission throughout training camp.
“I’m a competitor,” Knox said. “I want to get on the field as soon as possible. That’s obviously the main goal.”