Mississippi’s Tylan Knight, 3, slips past Alabama’s Kevontae Ruggs, 22, on a 29-yard punt return.

HATTIESBURG — Pearl’s Tylan Knight is listed at 5 feet, 8 inches tall and he just might be when he’s wearing spikes. He is listed as weighing 178 pounds, and he is all of that, and it is all muscle, grit and brain matter.

Can’t tell you how many Mississippi high school football coaches have told me that Knight is, pound for pound, the best high school player in the state.

Rick Cleveland

I’ll go one step further: He’s the best high school player, period, in the state and that probably makes him the best player in two states since Mississippi’s All-Stars routed Alabama’s best 42-7 here Saturday in the most one-sided Magnolia State victory in history of the 31-game series.

Knight, a linebacker and special teams wizard, shared MVP honors with Yazoo County’s splendid Kenny Gainwell, who scored three touchdowns playing both quarterback and running back. Gainwell, by the way, is not a big guy either at 5-10 and 185 pounds.

Just goes to show, you don’t have to wear a size 50 sports coat to help win football games, which is something I’m not sure all college coaches understand.

Gainwell has long been a commitment to the University of Memphis, and he’ll help the Tigers win games.

Tylan Knight was smiling big – and stretching – as the final seconds ticked away.

Knight, however, has not received a Division I FBS scholarship offer – and that boggles the mind.

Says Pearl coach John Perry, “He could start on special teams for any team in the SEC. He could help them win football games. He’s gonna make any team better the day he walks in the locker room because as great a player as he is, he’s a better human being. He’s the best football player to ever come through Pearl, and that’s saying something.”

Knight led the Pearl Pirates to 16 straight victories and a State 6A championship, scoring the winning touchdown and making play after defensive play in the championship game.

Here Saturday, Knight intercepted a pass, returned three punts for 45 yards, and was in on three tackles in the Alabama backfield and five tackles total. But those numbers don’t tell the story of how big all those plays were.

I’ll give you one for-instance: In the first quarter, Alabama’s punishing, 215-pound running back Kavosiey Smoke was in the open field, seemingly about to break another big run and he had already run one for 42 yards. The only guy in his way was Knight, who was giving up about 40 pounds. Knight hit him low and Smoke went down hard.

Or this one: With the game tied at 7 early in the third quarter, Knight broke three tackles on a 29-yard punt return to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

After Patrick Shegog’s three-yard touchdown run, some wise guy in the press box tweeted: “If you are watching this game on TV, keep your eyes on No. 3 (Knight). He’ll be around the football. Count on it.”

So, Alabama’s next play, Knight read four-star Alabama quarterback James Foster’s eyes and intercepted a pass to set up another Mississippi touchdown – and the rout was on.

“Tylan’s football intelligence is off the charts,” said Clinton coach Jud Boswell, Mississippi’s defensive coordinator in this game. “I’m telling you, nothing is gonna stop that kid. He wins every battle and he helps you win the war.”

Said Perry, who will talk all day about Tylan Knight to any college coach who wants to listen (and many who don’t), “They say he’s too little. Yeah, he’s short, but he squats 600 pounds and benches 300. He runs a 4.43 40. All he does is win.”

And win. And win. And win.

“I feel like I have something to prove every time I go out there,” Knight said. “Every time, I’m trying to prove that I can do it and will do it.”

As Knight talked, he was surrounded by teammates – and some reporters – who towered over him. He said he has received offers from Jackson State, Alabama State, Central Arkansas and Northern Colorado. He had just made some of the biggest plays that helped stomp players who have committed to play for Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Stanford and many more.

Indeed, most folks thought Alabama, a team loaded with highly recruited, much publicized players, would beat Mississippi the way Mississippi wound up beating Alabama.

“We played with a chip on our shoulder,” Lance Mancuso, the Mississippi head coach said.

So did Tylan Knight, also a fine student who plans to be a lawyer, and was the smallest of the Mississippi players.

Said Mancuso, a seven-time state champion coach, “Tylan Knight is one of the best football players I ever been around, and he is an incredible person. I’ll tell you this, that kid can play for anybody. Anybody.”


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.