Bolin: Is this the year Jacob Knipp finally takes the next step? Potentially

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University of Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp drops back to pass in a game against McNeese State Saturday at Nottingham Field in Greeley. Photo courtesy of uncbers.com

Potential.

It’s a word that’s been thrown around in regards to the University of Northern Colorado football program for a while now.

At least since the 2015 season, when then-freshman quarterback Jacob Knipp led the Bears to their first winning record since transitioning to Division I 12 years prior.

He also broke just about every freshman passing record UNC tracks, including completions (157), passing yards (1,969) and touchdown passes (13).

Hopes were high. 2016 was going to be the Bears’ year.

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“It’s not about winning seasons anymore,” coach Earnest Collins Jr. said of the Bears’ mindset for the 2016 season. “Now it’s about building this program up to be battling in the playoffs and get that going and then battling for championships. It’s all about trying to bring that winning brand of football back to the UNC Bears.”

Knipp was going to take another step forward after getting a whole offseason of first-team reps. Couple that with a healthy Trae Riek to bolster the ground game and the Bears garnered some preseason attention in the Big Sky.

And the Bears were firing on all cylinders — for just over four quarters at least.

Knipp went down with a shoulder injury just three snaps into the Bears second game, ending his season and putting a sizeable damper on UNC’s playoff aspirations.

Fortunately, coach Earnest Collins Jr. had now-Vikings quarterback Kyle Sloter to take control of the offense — a job he did quite admirably, finishing with 2,665 passing yards and a school-record 29 touchdowns in leading the Bears to another 6-5 record.

But it was still only uphill from there. Surely, 2017 would be when the Bears broke through.

Knipp was healthy, with a chip on his shoulder — his healthy one of course — and he was surrounded with preseason All-Big-Sky-selection Hakeem Deggs and speed threat Alex Wesley.

And he tore it up through UNC’s first four and a half games. He threw for 1,352 yards and nine touchdowns, completing passes at a 62.8 percent clip — including a gem of a game against Idaho State in which he completed 20 of 26 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns — before re-injuring the same shoulder that plagued him the season before.

UNC stumbled down the stretch, finishing at a disappointing 3-7. But Knipp’s medley of backups aren’t completely to blame. The Bear’s defense gave up 474.7 yards per game last season — a disappointing 105th out of 125 FCS teams.

Another year of high expectations. And another year of disappointment for QB 1.

University of Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp hands off to running back Trae Riek in a game against McNeese State Saturday at Nottingham Field in Greeley. Photo courtesy of uncbears.com

Now here we sit in a familiar position.

There’s a lot of optimism around the Bears training facility this season, even after the Bears season-opening loss to No. McNeese State Saturday. And Knipp is the one heading many — if not most — of those happy thoughts.

He has drawn attention from professional scouts, and is ranked as high as the No. 14 quarterback prospect in this year’s NFL Draft on some draft boards.

But of course that hinges on this season. On injuries. On performance. On success.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way for Knipp.

He was supposed to be the golden boy. Bring the Bears back to the success of their Division II days. His potential was off the charts.

But the fact of the matter is, he still can be. He still can. And it still is.

The Bears season-opener to McNeese State only raised more questions than it answered.

Knipp finished with 261 yards and a touchdown through the air, but also threw two interceptions — including one with the Bears trailing by just three with under four minutes left in the 17-14 loss.

The offense looked lost at times, but also showed flashes of great potential.

Ahh, that word again. Earnest Collins Jr.’s favorite phrase, yet the one he’s surely lost sleep over.

 

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