Jeremy Werner

Q&A: James Kirkland discusses promotion to Illini director of player personnel

Lovie Smith promoted former NFL scout James Kirkland to lead his recruiting department. Kirkland discusses the transition with Illini Inquirer.

Lovie Smith signed a top-40 recruiting class in February. So it was a bit of a shocker when he decided to shake up his recruiting staff less than a week after the Feb. 1 Signing Day.

Smith dismissed director of player personnel Josh Sternquist and has decided to promote from within, elevating recruiting analyst James Kirkland to Sternquist's role.

While Sternquist brought a dozen years of FBS recruiting staff experience to Illinois, Kirkland brings an NFL background to the position. He spent more than a decade as a scout for the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans before joining Smith's recruiting department last summer. 

Kirkland's background mostly includes scouting and evaluating players. Now, he takes the position of leading a college recruiting department.

Illini Inquirer caught up with Kirkland to discuss the transition.

How has your role changed?

James Kirkland: “Basically, I deal with players. It allows me to get back to my pedigree, which is evaluating players, both ours and guys we’re recruiting. That’s essentially what it deals with. Obviously, I work closely with (director of student-athlete development) Pat (Embleton) and (director of high school relations) Nate (McNeal), (recruiting and operations graduate assistant) Cam Skelding and (graphics/social media designer) Travis Perry. All of us kind of work together to make everything work because recruiting has a lot of moving parts, so we need a lot of people with different skill sets. It helps to have those guys.”

“For the most part, it’s really about tape and film and evaluating and that much for me. The rest of it, I have to learn a little bit: the correspondence, the visits, all that sort of stuff, the creative content with Travis and all that. We’re trying to bring all that together so that we’re credible in all those areas.”

So with this new title, do you have more say in the process?

James Kirkland: “At the end of the day, it’s about working together. A good friend of mine, Ray Farmer, who was (the general manager) in Cleveland, his thing was always, ‘We have to work together. Your title doesn’t matter.’ So if that means I may be this ‘director of player personnel,’ but at the end of the day if a recruit walks through the door and Pat’s not here or Nate’s not here, I’m taking him on a tour. Or I’m setting up chairs in the weight room. It doesn’t matter. You just play your position. You do your part.

"It's not about what I think. You know what I'm saying? I mean, how much time do coaches have to watch three games on every guy? They don’t. So that’s kind of where I fill in a little bit. Maybe they sit down and say, ‘Hey I think this guy is great.’ And sometimes I have to be the grim reaper, and say, ‘Hey, it’s not quite what it looks like on the outside tape.’ Or they may look at a guy and say, ‘He’s terrible.’ And I’ll say, ‘I watched the games. This guy’s not bad.’ We’ve had instances of that. At the end of the day, it’s about everybody coming to the table with an open mind, no ego and let’s just get it right. Forget who’s right. Let’s just get it right.”

Josh Sternquist had experience at the college level, and you have one year. Some people wonder about why the change then. I know it’s Lovie’s decision at the end of the day, but what do you say to people who are skeptical of that kind of move?

James Kirkland: “I wouldn’t speak to that specifically because I worked fine with Josh. I thought Josh was a great dude. I would just say nowadays, people draw a lot of conclusions with very little information. I think it’s hard to know what’s going on in this building when you’re not in there. Josh is solid. I liked Josh a lot. So that sentiment, I don’t have a lot to say about it.”

What have you learned most in your year here about college recruiting after spending most of your career in the NFL?

James Kirkland: “You don’t draft your players; they draft you. A lot of it does still carry over. Players aren’t obviously as mature. You have to try to get to what the real facts are. The things you use to try to evaluate players, Hudl, any game tape you can kind of get your hands on, and I’m more of a game tape guy. Camp information, all that kind of stuff. All of it is so subjective because everybody doesn’t do things the same way.

"What does a highlight tape really tell you about a player? It gives you an idea, but it doesn’t tell you what a player is. It doesn’t tell you how they use him. It doesn’t tell you what his role is. The highlight tape doesn’t tell you much ultimately. It may tell you (you need to watch more of a player), but that’s really about it. A lot of it times, what you see on a highlight tape is very different than what you see on game tape. Measureables, everyone wants to know how big is he? How fast is he? There’s really no way to figure that out. A kid goes to a camp and we know somebody at that camp and he says, ‘Hey, this dude ran a 4.6 today.’ Well, did he? Because with camps it’s all different. They’ll say he ran a 4.6 and you really look at their watch and it says 4.74. That’s a big difference. There’s not as much factual information outside of the game tape and the live evals that the coaches have when they go on the road.”

How do you have you adapted to all the NCAA rules and guidelines?

James Kirkland: “You just manage it. That’s why I have to lean on Pat. I have to lean on Nate. I have to lean on the coaches that have done it who have been in college. I have my ways, but I’m not so rigid that I can’t adjust to what’s going on or am unwilling to listen. It’s different. It’s very, very, very, very different.”

How do you feel you guys did with the class of 2017?

James Kirkland: “I feel like we did some good things. But hypothetically in two or three years, if we hit the field and things don’t go well, what will people say? It don’t matter. All that stuff. It kind of doesn’t matter. But what did come out of it is people working together. At the end of the day, if you do that, you got a chance to be better than the sum of your parts. That’s what we want to do on the field. That’s what we want to do in the building.”

How do you manage just the quantity of players involved in football recruiting? How do you take such a huge list of players, make sure you see as many as possible and whittle it down to your selected targets?

James Kirkland: “That's a great question. There’s so many more names and players come from everywhere. What it really boils down to is we want to recruit guys that we like. Coaches want to recruit guys that they like. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.

“You try to keep it as simple as possible so you’re not trying to hug the building. How do you get your arms around a building? It’s too much. There may be guys in Oregon that we like and we see a fit for and all that stuff, but he’s in Oregon. You’re going to go from Oregon to here? Unless you have some sort of specific tie. We try to stay away from that, unless there’s a tie, like (2017 signee and California native) Bennett Williams. Bennett Williams had an obvious tie (his father played at California-Berkeley with Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson). He fit a need, so it worked. So he went from way over here to here because there’s a relationship. If you’re going to get outside your area, you got to have a relationship tie. Or if somebody recruits you, you have to be open to that too. You don’t pick them. They pick you.”

Are there things you learned from last cycle that impact how you guys approach this class, whether it's something you should or shouldn't do?

James Kirkland: “There’s a lot of that, but at the end of the day, it’s about fits. What fits? You can run into trouble sometimes because there may be a player who’s got 12 offers and (people say), ‘You all should offer him.’ But he doesn’t really fit what we’re looking for. Or if we have depth there that we feel good about. Then it becomes unproductive to say, ‘All right, let’s offer him because Michigan State offered.’ That doesn’t make sense. You want to make the best use of your time, especially with it being so big and it taking a long time. And can the kid get into school? What kind of relationship do we have with him? Those kind of things play into it. We can’t have a great relationship with 5,000 kids. It’s just not possible.

How do you feel about the start to the 2018 class and where you’re going with it? It’s a smaller class, obviously.

James Kirkland: “Yeah, it’s a smaller class. Right now, we feel pretty good about it because right now the evaluation piece really just started. As we’re working on ‘18, we’re also working on ‘19. So I know that publicly we’ve probably taken a bit of a hit, but at the end of the day, it’s about what’s best for this football team, not about other things and other opinions. It’s a small class.”

How many do you think you’ll end up with?

James Kirkland: “I don’t know, but it’s small. We have eight seniors, so this is going to be a tiny class. I don’t know what happens throughout the year, who gets hurt, who decides who wants to go on with their career. I don’t know all that. But it’s going to be a small class. We have eight seniors, so we have to kind of be selective.”

Is there and upside to that that you can focus on a number of guys?

James Kirkland: “Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the more you can do that, the better. You’re talking about you have 10 or 11 scholarships. There’s no reason you should have 500 offers on the street. You just got to be patient and let things play out. Everybody doesn’t have to be committed tomorrow. A lot of guys commit and they de-commit. Even if you got guys to commit … we are still actively recruiting those guys. You have to continue to recruit them until Signing Day anyway. I don’t know if I buy into necessarily the convention of how recruiting should be done. But I understand we’ll probably take some criticism this year, and that’s OK. I think in the end, we’ll be OK.”

What’s important for you guys to accomplish in the Class of 2018?

James Kirkland: “I would say continue to find guys that fit what our coaches want to do and what they want this team to be. That to me that’s the most important about it. Everybody wants to be fast. Everybody wants to be big. We’re not different from that. So you just want to find players that fit, that fit what you want to do. Guys you like, you know why you like them and you have a fit and a plan for them. There are guys in this state that may not necessarily be highly recruited. There are guys in this state who are highly recruited that we feel like we may not have a fit for them. The best teams that I’ve viewed over the years are the teams that have guys who fit their schemes. It doesn’t matter if they came from the moon or Mars or wherever. It didn’t matter. They just fit a specific need and off they went.”

I get the feeling Lovie really likes recruiting.

James Kirkland: “He does.”

He likes the competitiveness of it?

James Kirkland: “And he’s really good at it. I’ll say that. You wish he’d be out on the road letting these guys see him a little bit, see him and feel him (NCAA rules prohibit head coaches from recruiting during the spring evaluation period). I don’t think people get a good appreciation for how solid and strong a guy he is. I think he’s underrated this way. He’s extremely personable. You’d expect, ‘Oh, he’s NFL.’ No, it’s not like that. He walks in your living room, and he fits like puzzle pieces. It’s a good deal. It really is.”

 


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