IOWA CITY — Forget the “sophomore” in front of Christian Kirksey’s name. In football years, he’s much younger.
Out of the wreckage of the Iowa State game, it’s difficult to say with credibility that there was a bright spot. You know the numbers, and you were re-introduced to the concept of contain. It was an ugly performance.
Kirksey, a 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, came the closest for the Hawkeyes. He led Iowa with 13 tackles, had two tackles for loss including a sack, forced a fumble and recovered it. A full-time day from Iowa’s weakside linebacker position, which was the launching pad for former Hawkeye Chad Greenway, who recently signed a five-year, $41 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
Yes, the recent history of Iowa linebackers to the NFL was mentioned to Kirksey this week. He astutely laughed it off.
“I’m just a young linebacker growing,” said Kirksey, who’s sixth in the nation in solo tackles at 8.5 a game. “I really haven’t focused on the NFL because I have a lot to do in college and I’m only a sophomore. I have a lot to improve on before thinking about the NFL.”
Yes, Kirksey is only a sophomore. And really, he’s only in his fourth year of football.
He played for two seasons under coach Mike Jones, the former St. Louis Ram, at Hazelwood East (Mo.) High School. He played for the Hawkeyes as a true freshman last season, all on special teams. And now, here he is, starting weakside linebacker.
That’s an incredible climb, especially considering the fact that Kirksey came to Iowa City weighing just 195 pounds. That’s small for a running back at Iowa, and so, yes, that’s undersized for a linebacker at Iowa and in the Big Ten.
Jones isn’t surprised, though. He saw this coming. Jones saw a family that was behind their son. He saw a player who took to the team and the game.
When Kirksey, whose nephew is Minnesota D-lineman Brandon Kirksey, started playing at Hazelwood East, the school was on the verge of a state title. In his first year, Kirksey joined a veteran team with a few college prospects.
He checked his ego and learned.
“He had to basically earn his stripes with those guys,” Jones said. “He kept his mouth shut and he knew what to do. And he just kept getting better and better and better.”
Every player has something that grabs coaches’ attention and gets him into the starting lineup. For Kirksey, it was speed. Jones and his staff saw it during the first week of practice.
Kirksey lined up at fullback. On the third play of a scrimmage, he took a simple trap play 80 yards for a TD.
“I looked at my offensive line coach and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we’ve got a football player,’” said Jones, who’s now the head coach at Lincoln University in Baltimore Pike, Pa. “He started off a little slow, but as he got better, the one thing I realized about him, he could really run. He ran extremely well for a guy his size. He blossomed.”
Kirksey knows speed is his thing and he banks on it.
“Because I am a smaller guy, I pay attention to my speed,” Kirksey said. “I can’t be in too many wrestling matches because of my size, so I try to use my speed to my advantage.”
That speed is what has Kirksey in the starting lineup, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“He’s done a lot of good things for us, and we’re asking him to do a lot,” Ferentz said. “His numbers were really good the other day, but like everybody on our team, not just offensively or defensively but everybody on our team right now, he’s got a lot of things he still has to get a lot better at and see quicker.”
That speed was sort of the point with linebackers coach Darrell Wilson. Sophomore Anthony Hitchens, a 6-1, 224-pounder is next off the bench.
“Sometimes, being quick and aggressive is better than that big, sluggy guy who maybe can’t get there,” Wilson said. “You want physical kids who can get there [tackle] and get out and play in space. . . . I think that’s the route we’ve gone with these ‘backers. They might seem light, but they’re still very tough, physical football players who can hold their own in the running game.”
Jones, who, might remember, made the game-winning tackle for the Rams in their Super Bowl XXXVI victory over the Titans, readily admits that Kirksey needs to see more football. After all, this is all of year No. 4.
“He played two years of high school football. He played special teams last year,” Jones said. “Now, he’s starting for a Big Ten school playing against really good football teams. He has to raise his awareness of the game.”
Kirksey is an able body. He’s also been a willing participant.
Coming to college football as a linebacker and weighing just 195 pounds, that probably should’ve spelled redshirt last season. As you probably have noticed, Iowa has had problems on special teams the last two seasons. Kirksey was asked to drop the redshirt and help on kick coverage last season.
He jumped at the chance, 195 pounds or not.
“Coaches told me, hey, we need you right now. Jump in there, we don’t care about your weight,” said Kirksey, whose father, Elmer, passed away during Christian’s first summer on campus. “It wasn’t really a hard decision. Everything is a learning experience. I feel I was the next man in.
“Apparently, they see something in me if they want me to go in the game. I feel it was a good decision, though.”
So far, so good.
On IC — It was a great fit for me. The family atmosphere pulled me in. I just liked the the feel of the coaches and how they coach. How they take every player and bring them in. It doesn’t matter how many stars you have, what position you play or any of that. It depends on your work ethic. I feel that they just brought me in as a family member. — Junior season came down to Iowa — Basically liked everything I saw. Coach Ferentz is a tremendous coach. That basically helped me with my decision. — Fan of some college — When I was younger, I didn’t pay attention to Iowa. But as I got older, I started to see how their defense worked and pretty much thought I could play for them one day.
History of LBs — I’m just a young linebacker growing. I really haven’t focused on the NFL because I have a lot to do in college and I’m only a sophomore. I have a lot to improve on before thinking about the NFL.
Weighed 195 when he came in — That didn’t really knock me down or whatever. I just knew I had to work even harder to play linebacker because I’m light. It kind of made me more confident. — jumped without redshirt – Coach always talks about the next man in and you never really know when you’re going to be called. You just have to be ready to help the team out. I made sure I was focused and ready to help. Coaches told me, hey, we need you right now. Jump in there, we don’t care about your weight. You’ve just got to go play because we need you. — It wasn’t really a hard decision. Everything is a learning experience. Everything is done for a reason. I feel I was the next man in. Apparently, they see something in me if they want me to go in the game. I feel it was a good decision, though. — to play LB? — Yeah, I feel like I was. But I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t know everything about linebacker. I was still learning looking at the older players. When you go in there, you do what you have to do. There’s no time to think, just react to everything.
Mike Jones — He keeps me encouraged. He tells me the things I need to do and the kind of mindset I need to have when I’m approaching games. — I look up to him in many ways. He was a tremendous linebacker. He played for the St. Louis Rams and that’s where I’m from. He made the game-winning tackle, that made me more appreciative of him. I remember when I first met him I was just psyched about him being my head coach and he made the game-winning tackle.
How gain weight — Eat as much as possible. I wouldn’t say burgers, but just stuff my face with whatever we get at training table. The shakes, the protein bars, just stuff my face, basically. — Morris, keep it on — It is hard. I have to adjust to how much I have to eat. Basically, I have to think like a big fella. When I’m at the table, I constantly have to think like a 300-pound player. — Carl Davis — Eat what he eats — I try.
Speed element — Because I am a smaller guy, I pay attention to my speed. I can’t be in too many wrestling matches because of my size, so I try to use my speed to my advantage. — Covering RBs – I like doing it all, just going out there and playing football. It really wouldn’t matter. Football is football. I just like tackling people.
You know Kirksey wants to be here and feels incredibly comfortable in Iowa City. During his first days on campus, his father, Elmer, died. Christian has a picture of his father tattooed on his right shoulder.
“The team and the coaches basically pulled me in as family,” said Kirksey, who played as a freshman on special teams last fall. “They were always here for me when I needed them. I give credit to the team for being there and giving me a family atmosphere.”
Well, he’s a good young player. He’s got pretty good skills. He’s not the biggest guy right now, but he’s young, second-year player on campus. Just to give you a comparison, when Greenway and Hodge were here, they both redshirted that first year, and when they were at this point, they were both playing special teams, and then in year three they were both playing. I’m not comparing him to those guys, other than just the physical development, mental development. But Christian, he’s got good instincts, he’s really showing that. He’s done a lot of good things for us, and we’re asking him to do a lot. His numbers were really good the other day, but like everybody on our team, not just offensivelyor defensively but everybody on our team right now, he’s got a lot of things he still has to get a lot better at and see quicker, and there’s some things that — everybody was guilty of giving up somethings and coaching-wise, too, so we all have a hand in it. He’s like everybody else; he’s going to have to keep getting better. But he’s got a great attitude. He’s going to be a really good football player for us.
COACH FERENTZ: Yeah, he only weighs whatever he weighs. I mean, when we recruited him, I’m not even sure he was 200 pounds. He can run pretty well, yeah. To answer the question, he runs pretty well.
See this coming — I could see this coming for a couple reasons. At home, his father passed away, so he had to mature a little bit, but his grandfather, father and mother did a phenomenal job with him. His nephew, Brandon, at Minnesota, he had another great role model there and the tradition at Hazelwood East. He had a lot of things laid out in front of him and he used everything he had to his advantage, learning from players who were there and the guys who moved on. He’s a very, very respectful young man. You could see it coming. He had all the tools and athletic ability to be a really good linebacker, but the intangibles and things off the field, he always did the right thing. You could see that coming.
Undersized — What project to — All he has to work on is being the best football player he can be. He can be an inside linebacker or a safety. If he works hard enough, Christian can play any position he wants to play. He’s determined, works hard and wants to be good at what he does. Whether it be a safety or linebacker, he’s a good Will linebacker. He’s probably 210 pounds now and he’s got good height. He’ll put some weight on, he’ll get up to 225 eventually. He studies the game. I think the Will linebacker is a good position for him, but wherever they play him.
Open your eyes — His junior year, the year that he started, was the year we won state. We had a lot of seniors on that team. He had to basically earn his stripes with those guys. A lot of those guys started as sophomores and juniors. The guys who were coming up had to earn their stripes. Christian understood that for two reasons. His nephew was there and he went to the University of Minnesota. He knew what he had to do. He kept his mouth shut and he knew what to do. And he just kept getting better and better and better. He started off a little slow, but as he got better, the one thing I realized about him, he could really run. He ran extremely well for a guy his size. He was playing fullback for us. In the first three plays of a scrimmage, he ran a trap play 80 yards for a touchdown. I looked at my offensive line coach and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we’ve got a football player.’ He blossomed. We struggled a little bit his senior year, so we played him all over because we only had two or three seniors. He and Don [Shumpert] pretty much carried the team. I told Christian about the second game of the season, we expect you to make every single tackle. He ended up setting the record for most tackles in the season with 166 tackles in 10 or 11 games. We needed him to make plays and that’s what he did.
His recruiting — Iowa saw a guy who could run, who was athletic and who had a frame. He fit that Will linebacker that they play there. They play that under and that over front. Their Will linebacker is a run-and-hit guy, and he fit that to a T. He covers pretty well and can get out in space. You can put him out in space when you need to. He had the athletic ability that they’re looking for. He was a little undersized for his weight, but I tell him all the time, I was an undersized linebacker myself. It’s not how big you are, it’s how fast you get to the point. I think he learned that pretty quickly. I might weigh only 195 pounds, but if I beat that guy to the punch, I’m either knocking him back or getting a stalemate. When you watch him, you notice he plays really fast because he knows that’s his strength, his speed.
Work on? — He’s a young football player, he has to learn the game. There are a whole bunch of things he needs to improve on, but that will come with maturity. He needs to work on every facet, his run keys, his drops and getting stronger in the weight room. All those things come with maturity. I think that’s where he’s a little short at. He played two years of high school football. He played special teams last year. Now, he’s starting for a Big Ten school playing against really good football teams. He has to raise his awareness of the game. –