In person, Jonathan McKnight is slight, shy and - to be honest - a little shorter than you'd think.

On film, however, the Arizona Wildcats' sophomore cornerback is magic.

Think Superman after his trip to the phone booth. Captain Jack Sparrow with a sword in his hands.

Harry Potter, only with shoulder pads.

"Every play is important to him, and it shows up on the practice film," defensive backs coach Ryan Walters said. "You can't catch the ball on Jonathan; he won't let it happen.

"We have a lot of competitive guys, but his level of competition play-in and play-out puts him over the top."

Coaches, the ultimate film critics, are unanimous in their reviews through the first two weeks of training camp: After spending last year as a part-time player, McKnight has his position on lockdown.

The 5-foot-11-inch, 175-pound McKnight has used his work ethic and raw talent to secure one of two starting cornerback positions opposite either sophomore Trevin Wade or sophomore Shaquille Richardson; whoever loses out will likely start the season at nickel back.

The move to first string is a major coup for McKnight, the younger brother of former USC star and current New York Jets running back Joe McKnight.

Jonathan played in all 13 games as a true freshman, most of them spent on special teams and in backup duty. Robert Golden moved to safety when starter Adam Hall tore knee ligaments during spring drills, allowing McKnight to challenge for a starting role at cornerback.

The Star talked with McKnight, 20, about his camp, competition and hometown. Here's what he said:

• On battling receivers in training camp: "It's going good. The receivers, I'm making them better and they're making me better. They're pushing me every play. I have to do my best every play, just like they have to do their best. I can see it's making me better now than I was last year."

• On last week's practice scare: "We were doing defensive tackling drills. I was on my back, I stepped up and my knee, it hyperextended. It wasn't that bad. I was in shock - like, it was unbelievable. I just missed that day."

• On playing alongside Wade, a senior and three-year starter: "He gives us his observations and everything, tells me what he did and all that. When he says that stuff, you have to listen. He's the senior guy among the DBs, so he has to tell us."

• On becoming a leader: "I'm ready to step up to the competition. The leader part, I can do that, too. It's just that I'm not an outspoken person."

• On adjusting to Tucson after growing up in River Ridge, La.: It took me a while to get used to Tucson, but now it feels like home to me. Being around the football team, every time I'm around them, I feel like they're my brothers."


Day 11, at Rincon Vista

• Highlights: The Wildcats' offensive line and defensive backs struggled in Tuesday morning's practice, the biggest sign yet that the team has work to do before the start of the season. Familiar faces continued to dominate training camp: wide receiver Gino Crump caught four long touchdown passes, including a nifty snag over the head of walk-on safety Jared Tevis. Juron Criner had two scoring grabs. Safety Mark Watley had his third interception in two days during 11-on-11s, and corneback Cortez Johnson (INT, 2 PBUs) continues to fight for a spot in the crowded defensive backfield.

• Weather: 97 and humid

• Injury report: Quarterback Matt Scott missed his second straight practice with strep throat. QB Bryson Beirne and nickel back Jourdon Grandon are out indefinitely with knee sprains. Wide receiver Dan Buckner was held out of his second straight practice for precautionary reasons. Safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer, running back Greg Nwoko and defensive tackle Willie Mobley are all recovering from offseason knee surgeries.

• Up next: The Wildcats will hold their third two-a-day of training camp today, practicing from 7 to 9 a.m. and 6 to 7:30 p.m..

• He said it: "We have to put this last string of two-a-days together. It's definitely a grind, but that's what it's about, you know? This is where you find out who's going to grind for you and who's going to play. It's a big part of camp. You want guys who are going to want to get out here and work, and who want to get out here and play every day. It's a good thing." - wide receiver David Douglas

Ryan Finley

Coming Aug. 28

The Star's 2011 college football preview section.

• Season opener: Sept. 3 vs. NAU, 7 p.m. at Arizona Stadium