Jeremy Werner

Illini recruiting analyst James Kirkland discusses his NFL background, new role with Illini

James Kirkland spent more than a decade in NFL scouting departments, spending time with the Falcons, Browns (rising to assistant director of player personnel and, on his second stint with Cleveland, as the senior player personnel associate), Bears and Titans. The former Duke player has returned to the college game as a recruiting analyst for Illinois coach Lovie Smith's beefef-up recruiting department. Kirkland discussed that role and his love for scouting with Illini Inquirer.

Tell us a little bit about where you were at before this and your background.

James Kirkland: "Before coming here, I was with the Cleveland Browns, senior personnel associate there. I mostly covered the West Coast. I did college scouting for the draft on the West Coast and also did some pro scouting for two teams."

I'm guessing Lovie Smith is what drew you here.

Kirkland: "Psh. Without a doubt. I had a chance to work with Coach Smith at Chicago. Oddly enough I was coming from Cleveland then as well, the first time I was in Cleveland. I went to Chicago. It was just very, very different atmosphere, a different type of process and everything. But I grew to really like how they did business and how they approached tackle football."

Why was that? What did they do different?

Kirkland: "To me, it was, 'Hey, this is our brand of football. This is how we do things, and we're going to stay with that.'"

Very self-assured?

Kirkland: "Yeah. It was just, 'Look, this is what we do.' I think one of the hardest parts about tackle football is like finding your niche and your brand and how you want your ball to look. Once you figure that out, then it's probably going to be a little transition time before it actually shows up the way you want it to on the field. But once you can find that and start your process and stay with that process and start to perfect it, then you're putting out a good product on the field."

So what is the transition like for you to the college game? You scouted college kids before, but now you're scouting high school kids. Is there a transition or is it mostly the same?

Kirkland: "It's different but the same because, at the end of the day, we're still talking tackle football. I think any way you look at it, you want to have good athletes. You want to have good people. I think we approach it as such, you can find the good athletes, you can find the good people. That's what you build your program on and what you build it around. For a good little while in the league, I think about four years consecutive, all I scouted really was pro players. Then when I went to Tennessee, I had to switch gears. I mostly did pro players but I also started to do some college. At the end of the day, it was still tackle football. Is this guy athletic enough to do the things that our coaches want him to do? If you can find those, you're fine. That's the gig."

You mentioned Lovie has an identity, that 'this is what we do.' Is there a certain type of player he wants?

Kirkland: "Not in particular, but I think at the end of the day, I think everybody's looking for kind of the same thing. You know what I mean? It's a little bit different depending on the scheme, but I think the more athletic guys are, the better the chances to be able to learn in your scheme. I think that's the best part about being here because you have a staff full of teachers and guys that want to teach these guys the fundamentals and develop them as players and put them in a position to be successful. As long as you've got that, now it's just about finding the guys who are athletic, that have some speed to them, that also love tackle football. You mix those three, and you're cooking with gas."

What's the process you guys go through here at Illinois in scouting players?

Kirkland: "All of it really starts with the coaches. It starts with how they want to employ or deploy each position. So we start really at the base of it 'OK, what are we going to be asking guys to do at tight end?' We want them to be block a man over there head. We want them to be able to run and separate. So we start there. With all the players across the country in different places, we basically just go out and start looking at as many as we can. We have a concentration in our kind of diamond area (Chicago to St. Louis to Indianapolis/Cincinnati), so we start there and try to whittle those lists down with guys we feel like fit the bill for what our coaches want. Then the coaches take over for there. Our job really is kind of to set the table or put the ball on the tee for the coaches and let them go get 'em."

Watching film for hours upon hours must be so methodical. Are there certain little things that stick out about players? Are there 'a-ha!' moments with players or is it just a grind?

Kirkland: "Look, it is a grind and to do it, you better have a passion for it. You better love it. I started when I was 13 and my mom gave me a VCR. My favorite show was Sanford & Son so I recorded it over and over and I would just watch it over and over again. But I would also do the same thing with football. I'd record high school football on Friday, college football on Saturday and then on Sundays, I'd do pro football. I'd just watch that over and over again. I sort of got enamored with how guys moved and how teams used this guy.

"Like I remember watching (former Notre Dame receiver) Raghib Ismail. I don't know what game it was. I remember the grass was kind of high. It was real green, and they were in the white jerseys, gold britches and he had the white socks up to about (his knee) and he had the black shoes. He gets the reverse and he's running so fast that all you see is the flash of the white socks turning over. I'm like, 'Wow! This guy's super fast. He's different from the rest of these guys out there.'"

That hooked you?

Kirkland: "Yeah. I got in the habit of kind of doing that. Then when I went to college to play football, and they had the video machines up. They had the rooms and you could just go in there at any time"

Was that like Christmas for you?

Kirkland: "Yeah! Yeah! Me and (Duke teammate and former Browns general manager) Ray Farmer used to go in there all the time. That's what we did. It could be 12, 1 o'clock in the morning. 'Let's go to the office, man, and watch some Nebraska. Let's watch Florida State and Miami's linebackers. Those guys were great.' We loved watching Brian Dawkins. I guess at the end of the day, it's a disease. You have to be bitten and you have to be accepted. I don't know, it just kind of takes me into a different world and it gives me a chance to play in my brain a little bit I guess."

So has this been a bit of a whirlwind for you? I know the recruiting staff has really just been established recently. This is different for Illinois, to have this big of a recruiting staff, a former NFL scout on staff. What's the operation been like as you get used to each other?

Kirkland: "At the end of the day, it's about doing everything we can to help the coaches. The thing that's been really pleasant from my point of view is everybody's been completely open about to, 'Look, this is what we're trying to do. What's the best way to get there?' There have been no egos about, 'No, we need to do it this way!' There's been no egos that way. That's been refreshing because it's not always that way. We've got good people. ...I just think working with these guys, I feel like I'm fortunate."

A lot of NFL scouts are here. They're all looking at that defensive line. You seem to know a lot of these guys. What are they looking for when they're coming up? So when you went and scouted a college, what were you looking for?

Kirkland: "It's interesting. It's a simple question with not such a simple answer. The simple answer is, 'Well, you know, you're looking for quality talent.' I think to some extent that's true. But I think more than anything, you're looking for quality. You're looking for the quality talent, but more than anything you're looking for the quality person. You're looking for somebody that actually represents your brand and represents your organization."

Does a lot of that evaluation come from talking to coaches while you're here? Is that even bigger than watching them?

Kirkland: "Absolutely. Talking with coaches, watching them at practice, talking to people around the program. You can talk to anybody. There are some schools I might talk to the cafeteria lady. At some schools, I may talk to the hotel desk clerk. You know what I mean? I might talk to somebody on campus. I may find a student on campus and ask, 'Hey, you know some of these football players?' It's about trying to find out who the person is and how they treat people. What are they doing when nobody's looking. That's not always easy to assess from afar. You kind of have to get on campus and get your hands on folks."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories