Kirkpatrick remembers breakout senior year

After spending his first three years mostly blocking for Emmitt Smith, the hiring of Steve Spurrier rejuvenated tight end Kirk Kirkpatrick’s career. The Florida players knew about Spurrier’s reputation at Duke and saw an opportunity for their careers to take off under the new head coach.

Kirkpatrick started half the games during his sophomore year and most of them as a junior, but something was always missing in those games. He came to Florida in 1987 as a tight end that thrived as a pass catcher, but it didn’t seem like that during his first three seasons. He caught only 27 passes in those first three years, waiting for his big opportunity to come.

And then it did in 1990.

Kirkpatrick remembers looking at Duke’s statistics in 1989 and seeing big numbers from the tight end position.

“You knew the numbers he put up,” Kirkpatrick said. “I knew their tight end at Duke caught a lot of balls. I was very excited because I was a receiving tight end. I came in with a lot of experience, but catching the ball and running routes was my forte. I was really excited.”

His excitement was rewarded. Kirkpatrick ended his senior season by rewriting the record books. After catching 27 passes in the first three years, Kirkpatrick caught 55 passes in his senior season and the first year Spurrier took over as the head coach. Kirkpatrick’s 55 catches in 1990 and 82 career catches were both school records at the tight end position, but Aaron Hernandez (111 career catches, 68 catches during 2009 season) snapped both of them.

Kirkpatrick’s senior year ended with 55 catches, 770 yards and seven touchdowns.

The change was big for the entire offense. Like any coach would, Galen Hall’s offense ran through Emmitt Smith and made sure he touched the ball plenty of times. When Smith decided to go pro and Spurrier took the job shortly after, practices were different.

“We were much more physical and spent most of our days blocking (under Hall), and rightfully so because Emmitt was a fantastic running back and one of the best of all time,” Kirkpatrick said. “Going to Spurrier, it was limited contact in practice and we worked on a lot of footwork, route running and catching the ball. It was not a lot of hitting. It turned around a lot of careers for people and changed the shape of college football.”

Spurrier didn’t just change the physical aspects of the team. He wanted their mentality to be different, and that’s what Kirkpatrick credits most for the quick turnaround. The Gators had lost at least five games in four straight seasons before Spurrier took over, but in his first season, the team went 9-2.

It happened because the players bought into Spurrier’s message.

“The University of Florida had never really had the success that would come later. Spurrier comes in and believed in the athletes we had, basically saying we could dominate any of the SEC teams,” Kirkpatrick said. “Alabama, Auburn and Georgia – they got all the Florida kids because Florida was an afterthought. It was really big for Spurrier to come in and have confidence in us.

“Spurrier just had a mindset when he came in and said, ‘listen, we’ve got better athletes than Auburn, Georgia or Alabama has, and you guys just keep losing to them.’ He just changed our mindset.”

Kirkpatrick also benefited from a meteoric rise up the depth chart by quarterback Shane Matthews. The two had an immediate connection in practice, and the senior tight end noticed how smart he was with the football and the perfect fit he was under Spurrier.

It took a unique quarterback to fit under Spurrier. He was different from most quarterback coaches and needed his players to lose their ego before joining the program.

“The key to Spurier’s offense is you’ve got to have a quarterback that is not hardheaded and not full of himself,” Kirkpatrick said. “Spurrier makes a lot of decisions, and you have to be able to take criticism. You can’t have a huge ego. If you see people with big egos, they don’t usually do well on Spurrier’s teams, period. He’s the boss. He gives you your due and respect once you buy in.”

The players also recognized a change in the program once Spurrier took over. Under Hall, the program wasn’t always enjoyable for the players.

“It was very, very discipline oriented, tight program,” Kirkpatrick said. “You didn’t really have a lot of enjoyment, not as much as you’d think.”

Spurrier changed the environment, keeping the business-minded approach but adding in a loose, confident mindset that benefited the players on the field. Kirkpatrick remembered most of the players that came to Florida not having a connection to the program. The tradition wasn’t rich and that needed to be changed.

Other coaches tried to do that, but it wasn’t successful. Kirkpatrick pointed to Charlie Pell introducing orange jerseys to the team for game but said that only happened because Pell wanted to be more like Clemson.

“Spurrier ditched the orange jerseys and went to blue jerseys,” Kirkpatrick said. “Spurrier just loved the University of Florida. He was into everybody singing the alma mater after the game. To this day, I don’t know of a better Gator than him. You could say Tim Tebow now, but Spurrier just loved the University of Florida. I wish he was still there, but unfortunately, he thought it was his time to go.”

Now living in Tampa, Kirkpatrick still follows the Florida program and makes it back to Gainesville for at least a game or two each season. Even though he wishes Spurrier was still at Florida, he does like Will Muschamp. It wasn’t the same feeling when Urban Meyer was the head coach.

“I can’t say that I loved Urban,” Kirkpatrick said. “He did a fantastic job but he was more of a mercenary.”

He has spent time with Muschamp and “(loves) the guy,” still believing he will get the Florida program back to where it was.

“Will is, I’m sure, feeling pressure but that comes with making $3.5 million a year,” Kirkpatrick said. “Will is very capable. I root for him with all of my heart. I think he’s a great guy and a great coach. I hope he proves some of these people wrong. It was an extremely tough year, but I hope things work out for him.

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