Fifth-year senior safety Robert Knowles has the kind of love for the University of Miami that first-year head coach Manny Diaz covets.
Diaz has said repeatedly that he is targeting players who badly want to be Miami Hurricanes, players who care deeply about the program and are intent on restoring it to its former greatness.
Knowles, who graduated from Miami Edison High in 2015 and is distinguishable by the flowing dreadlocks he hasn’t cut since ninth grade, is one of those players. He just hasn’t had the illustrious career that some others, such as former safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine, had.
And though he is aware of the mean-spirited social media posts that have bashed him for allowing critical plays in the past, he told reporters Wednesday that he’s “no quitter’’ and that his heart has always been with the program.
A special teams and reserve safety the past three seasons, Knowles was pressed into substantial duty when starter Amari Carter was ejected for targeting in the first quarter of UM’s loss last Saturday at North Carolina — and did an admirable job, according to Diaz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker.
Knowles played nearly the entire game, garnering a career-high-tying five tackles.
“I really ain’t no quitter,’’ said Knowles. “You gotta understand. I love Miami and my parents love Miami and I never wanted to leave. I had ups and downs, but that’s like every player. I just stuck around and stayed focused and looked at my playbook... and [didn’t] let nothing on the outside mess me up mentally.’’
Knowles has played in 39 games and started one in a 2017 UM victory over Georgia Tech. He had 40 tackles coming into 2019 and has 48 now.
“I think Rob Knowles has really been a success story,’’ Diaz said Wednesday. “A guy like you mentioned who has had some ups and downs throughout his career. But here’s the rare thing: [He’s] a guy that stayed, a guy that loves Miami, that in this day and age everyone on the outside world would say, ‘Transfer. Go somewhere else. Do something else.’
“He loves Miami. He hasn’t done that. The way that he works and the way that he played on Saturday... you can just see the difference between older guys and younger guys.
“His demeanor, his urgency, I think he calmed the secondary down when he went in there because obviously we were a little rattled in the first quarter of that game. He’s always been an A-plus in terms of tackling and just getting the football and getting it on the ground. Because those safety tackles, you take it for granted, but if he misses it it’s going to be a problem.
“I’m very happy to see Rob getting more of a role and having more success.’’
Knowles, who turned 23 in February, earned his degree a year ago in liberal arts with a major in science. He said that last year he tried “to do too much stuff’’ instead of focusing on his job. But now he plays free safety and the rover spot, which allows him flexibility.
“My hats off to Rob Knowles,’’ Baker said. “He came in, and I don’t think we skipped a beat back there. It hurt from a depth perspective for sure, but a lot of credit goes to Rob Knowles and being prepared just like a starter.”
Knowles said having three head coaches — Al Golden, Mark Richt and now Diaz (not counting Golden’s interim replacement Larry Scott) — has “been hard.’’ But “it wasn’t, ‘Oh, [I’m going] to leave because it’s a new coach,’’’ he said, “Or, ‘Oh, he probably didn’t recruit me.’ I just stuck to it because my heart was with the U and I love the U.
“...You gotta have the heart and the passion to love it. Once you got that, no point in giving up.’’