Aaron Kirkland brings big-time talent to UT

Aaron Kirkland of Fayetteville, N.C., is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle: his size and speed aren't sensational while his stats are modest by Division I standards, and yet, he's rated the nation's third best player at his position and he was passionately pursued by practically every major pigskin power in the country.

Seems like much ado about nothing when you consider Kirkland, 6-4, 248, caught 11 passes for 179 yards and five touchdowns as a senior; respectful numbers certainly, but not by any means eye popping. Neither does his 4.85 speed in the 40 seem like the type of figure that would routinely prompt 15 phone calls a night from parties with a profound interest in his football future.

It seems the curious case of Kirkland confirms how statistics can often deceive as much an inform and why 40-yard times are just a component of a prospect's overall qualifications. What both leave out about Kirkland are all the qualities that make him a special talent.

In truth, they don't reveal the fact he played on a team with a tailback-oriented offense and two outstanding wide receivers. Nor do they speak of his titanic toughness, quick feet, sure hands and impressive open field moves. They say nothing of his versatility, experience or breathtaking potential. Most of all they offer not an utterance of Kirkland's greatest strength, which is enough by itself to have college football's most successful coaches beating a path to his doorstep.

According to Jack Britt High School Head Football Coach Richard Bailey, if you want to know what turns talent scouts on about Kirkland you've got to see him in action:

"The biggest thing that he does that colleges are impressed by is a lot of high school tight ends catch the ball real good, they're about 6-5, 220 and they run around quite a bit, but they can't block they're more like big wideouts. Or they are like 6-5, 280, and they can't get down the field. One thing Aaron can do is block. He's the best blocker I've ever coached in 11 years. He's the best offensive lineman period. He had 60-something pancakes blocks last year. He had five or six blocks every game where he took very good football players and just put them on their backs.

"That's the thing that jumps out about him when you watch film. And he's got a nasty streak in him and he finishes people off. But he's also got the ability to make something happen after he catches the ball. Even though he's not a burner and we're real strict about it (40 times) with some coaches he might be a 4.7 guy, but he still has the ability to get open down the middle of the field. He's a first team all-conference basketball player so he's got good feet. He can make people miss or run people over, he can do stuff after he catches the ball. But it's more his blocking ability that really gets coaches excited."

College coaches were also excited about Kirkland's defensive skills and diversity which are underscored by big numbers he posted as a two-year starter at defensive end for Britt. Last season Kirkland compiled 101 tackles with six sacks and 16 tackles for losses. As a junior, he had over 100 tackles with 11 sacks.

"Quarterbacks were very good at throwing the ball away this year," said Bailey. "He came close to getting a lot more sacks. I know he had a lot of hurries."

Kirkland's achievements were against the toughest teams in the state as all of Britt's losses in a 7-4 season were to top eight teams in Carolina's highest classification. Prior to playing at Jack Britt High, Kirkland started two seasons at Douglas Byrd High School including a sophomore campaign when his squad reached the state title game. He came to Britt when it was opened in 2000.

"I was coaching this Cumberland County area and I came over here from Pine Forrest when they started this school," said Coach Bailey. "Luckily he was in my district. It didn't make Coach Pearl over at Douglas Byrd very happy because Aaron has been a good player all through high school."

Douglas Byrd High School is noted as a power running team with a history of success utilizing that style. As a two-year starter at tight end, Kirkland earned his stripes by taking on defenders at the point of attack. He didn't get much of a chance to catch the ball, but it might have been a blessing in disguise.

"He blocked mostly at Douglas Byrd because all they do is run," said Bailey. "I didn't know he had such good hands until we got him over here and we starting working with him. Aaron was excited coming over here cause he got to catch the ball. At Douglas Byrd their idea of throwing the ball was running a power sweep. Don't get me wrong, they were great at it, but he didn't get a chance to catch the ball much. That's probably why he's such a good blocker."

At Jack Britt Kirkland continued to build his reputation as a blocker, earning first team all-state honors two years in a row, and also got to show his skills as a pass catcher on occasion.

"We probably didn't throw to him enough to be honest with you," said Bailey. "But we had a great tailback and two good wideouts and we threw to them a lot."

On the other hand, Bailey did give Kirkland a chance to display his athletic abilities on defense which led to some good opportunities at the collegiate level. It may also be his ultimate destination at Tennessee depending on how much Kirkland grows and what the Vols needs may be.

"Carolina was recruiting him as a defensive lineman and so was Penn State," said Bailey. "I mean he's as good on defense and could end up at defensive tackle."

Given his prowess as a blocker and his capacity to add weight and strength, Kirkland could also become a stalwart on the offensive line for Tennessee.

"He could end up on the offensive line, too," Bailey said. "He's got a huge upper body. He's one of these guys that's got smaller legs, but he's not weak he squats over 500 pounds. He's got little ankles, but he's got that John Henderson type of barrel chest. He could weigh 300 pounds easily. If they want him to stay at tight end they're going to have to keep his weight down. When he gets to the training table and starts doing what they're doing, they're going to have to work to keep him under 260 so he can stay at tight end. But if they have a need an offensive lineman or defensive tackle, he could easily weigh 300 pounds and not lose any speed or quickness."

However, it appears that Kirkland might be in line to take over the John Finlayson power-blocking role, freeing Jason Witten for full-time deployment at H-back.

"Tennessee is expecting him to eventually be their Jason Witten, but next year they need him to be their on-the-line tight end blocker that can grow into Witten's H-back spot," Bailey explained. "That's what they're hoping. They want to be able to keep Witten at that H-back spot and not have to make him an on-the-line blocker. When they get Aaron in there, they'll get him a little faster with the pyrometric drills and stuff like that."

Kirkland already has a good start on the strength needed to play as a true freshman in the SEC. Despite very long arms, which are drawback in the bench press, he lifts a respectable 340 pounds and hoists a formidable 325 pounds in the hang clean.

"He's got long arms and he has great upper body strength," said Bailey who also commended Kirkland's efforts to qualify academically. "He's fully qualified. He takes regular classes and he'll do fine academically."

Bailey was as positive about Kirkland the person as he was Kirkland the student/athlete.

"He's a good person," said Bailey. "He's really a gentle giant. He works with these peer classes and that's what he wants to do is work with handicapped children and young kids. My daughter loves him. She's six years old and thinks he hung the moon."

With all of these admirable attributes it is understandable why Kirkland became an object of desire for college football programs. Tennessee won out over offers from all across the country before finally beating out Florida State, North Carolina, Michigan and Maryland.

"You name it and he had offers from them," said Bailey. "Anybody that saw him on film offered him a scholarship. His blocking as much as anything impressed them."

During the recruiting process Kirkland, who's known as "A.K." to his friends and teammates, showed a lot of maturity. He consistently played his cards close to the chest which had a lot of people guessing. In reality, Tennessee always had the inside track for his services.

"That's one thing Aaron never did," Bailey said. "He didn't ever commit to anybody until he told Tennessee's coaches he was coming there before signing day. He's as good as his word even when it was hectic. He was getting 15 calls a night at home.

"Tennessee was really his favorite all along. He went to camp there this summer and loved it up there. He went to one of the football games and walked in to 106,000 and that impressed him. There were times when Michigan was there, North Carolina was there or Florida State was there, but it's been Tennessee all along."

Bailey credits the work of Tennessee recruiting coordinator Dan Brooks with being essential to the Vols success with Kirkland.

"Coach Brooks is a great guy," he said. "The people over at North Carolina don't like him too much. I don't mean they don't like him personally, he steals a lot of players out of the state. He's got roots here and knows a lot of coaches."

Brooks successfully extracted three of the top eight prospects in North Carolina including Kirkland, Brandon Jefferies and Omar Gaither. The Vols narrowly missed on two others: defensive back A.J. Davis, who ended up at N.C. State, and A.J. Nicholson who signed with Florida State. Even though Nicholson is more highly rated, Bailey believes Tennessee got the best linebacker in the Tar Heel State.

"Omar Gaither is a great player," he said with growing enthusiasm. "He's a steal. You know the A.J. Nicholson kid is good, but Omar will be a better college player. You watch. No. 1: he runs better, he's a great student of the game and he's a high-character kid. From what I've seen on film and from what I've heard from other people who are good sources, you watch, Omar will make an impact this year on special teams. He blocked three kicks in the Shrine Bowl. He's going to be a good one. Put on a little weight and he'll be ready."

By the way, Kirkland recently turned 18 and celebrated the occasion by getting a tattoo.

"His mama finally consented and let him get a tattoo," Bailey said. "He turned 18 and got one on his left forearm. It says: A.K."

Now it appears that A.K. is ready to make his mark at Tennessee.

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