Illini wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy extended the early offer Saturday to the 6-foot-1, 200-pound standout from Lawrence Central High (Indianapolis, Ind.).
"I did not expect to get the offer," Kirkland said. "There's been communication between my parents and my coach with Illinois but personally I haven't really been in much contact with them."
That's going to change real soon, according to what Bellamy told Kirkland on the phone Saturday.
"He just said we're going to be going after you and recruiting you really hard," Kirkland, who had 138 tackles and seven sacks as a sophomore, recalled of the conversation.
Kirkland says he didn't grow up as a fan of the Illini, but his uncle, Aaron Shelby, played and started as an Illini in the early 1990s. Bellamy, who finished his Illinois career in 1989, has known about Kirkland for some time through the connection with Shelby.
"(Coach Bellamy) has been following me pretty much my whole life," Kirkland said. "He told me he wanted to give me the offer… I haven't really followed Illinois a whole bunch, but my family, we've always talked about them as a school and team because of my uncle."
He also holds offers from Akron and Toledo, but recently has seen the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue pick up interest. It seems the stream of big-time offers is just beginning for the rising junior.
"I'm very excited about it," Kirkland said. "I've got a long process in front of me, and I plan on taking one day at a time and letting the chips fall where they may.
"I haven't really felt any pressure. My goals are the same as they are every year. I want to try to lead my team to a state championship. If we do that everybody on the team benefits and can hopefully get to the next level after that. My mindset is to go out and do my best and see where that takes me."