Christian Kirk spent his first two years at Texas A&M developing into the SEC's 'most explosive player.' He used his third to grow into a leadership role.
Be Jeffri Chadiha | Published Nov. 15, 2017
It started as a typical phone call, one that Evan Kirk had made hundreds of times before this past summer, when his son, Christian, was preparing for his junior season at Texas A&M. Every weekend Evan and his wife, Melissa, would check in on the oldest of their three children, just to gauge what was happening in his world. This time, however, Evan thought it was important to chat about what awaited the Aggies' star wide receiver this past fall. As Evan well knew, there would be a different set of challenges facing Christian in his third year on campus.
There had been no question about what Christian could do on the field. In his first two seasons of college football, he'd amassed 163 receptions, 1,937 yards and 21 touchdowns, including five scores on punt returns. What Evan wanted to mention, in between the normal chatter about everyday life, was how Christian would handle the increased scrutiny that came with being a star surrounded by less experienced teammates. The Aggies had lost their starting quarterback (Trevor Knight), their best defender (defensive end Myles Garrett) and a host of other key members from an 8-5 team.
Christian understood how the team was changing. Evan just wanted to know if his son was ready for that transition.
"Last season (in 2016), Christian was the face of the offense and Myles was the face of the defense," Evan said recently. "So when I talked to Christian, I said, 'You're probably going to be the face of the team. He told me, 'I know that, Dad, but that's what I'm ready for.' This (position) was something he's been waiting to be in."
Anybody who's spent a significant amount of time around Christian Kirk wouldn't be surprised by that response. He didn't become one of college football's most dynamic talents solely because he's blessed with breathtaking speed, ankle-breaking quickness and the kind of vision that embarrasses potential tacklers. Kirk also has thrived because his head always has been in the right place. He came to A&M looking to make an impact, one that has been so substantial that Alabama head coach Nick Saban said, "Christian Kirk is maybe the most explosive player -- returner, receiver, runner -- of anybody in our league."
Kirk's numbers were slightly down from previous seasons -- he led the Aggies with 71 receptions for 919 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing with a bang against Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl with 13 catches for 189 yards and three scores. But what was different was the leadership he displayed -- the kind an NFL team will someday soon cherish. Instead of griping about touches, Kirk is helping younger receivers learn the system. He's also spent more time communicating with true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond and addressing the team as a whole. As Kirk told his father a few months earlier, he understood that what he did off the field would mean plenty for his team.
"It's definitely a challenge when you're the one who's receiving a lot of the attention from other teams," said Kirk, who added two more return touchdowns in his final season at A&M, giving him an Aggies-record seven in three years. "The biggest thing is patience and not pressing. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make plays to help us win. The numbers may not be as crazy as they were in the past but that just means I have to work that much harder to get open."
"It's not about us having a young quarterback; it's about us having a young crew around him," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said in the fall. "Christian has to focus on a lot -- doing his job, setting the pace for everybody else, leading by example, and talking to other players about what they need to do. That can be exhausting for anybody in his position."
Kirk also had to find ways to deliver when his team needed it most. In fact, one of the biggest factors in A&M's 19-17 win over Florida last October was the opportunistic play of the Aggies' star wideout. Kirk only had two receptions for 44 yards but one was a 40-yard catch from Mond that set up a field goal. Even more important was the play he made that set up Daniel LaCamera's game-winning, 32-yard field goal.
Florida coach Jim McElwain had told punter Johnny Townsend to kick away from Kirk all game. However, Townsend's final boot landed in Kirk's hands at the Aggies' 18-yard line with roughly 4:30 left in the contest. Kirk darted right, found a couple of blocks and raced up the sideline. By the time the Gators had tackled him, he had a 43-yard return, his team had the ball on Florida's 39-yard line, and all the momentum had swung in A&M's favor.
That one mistake proved how deadly Kirk can be at any given moment. It's also a testament to his mental toughness. He understands his opportunities to impact a game won't be as plentiful as they have been in the past so he has to capitalize whenever possible. That's a mindset he has worked hard to cultivate, especially since he only has two 100-yard receiving game this year after totaling seven in his first two seasons.
As much as he likes catching passes, Kirk has taken great pride in helping Mond grow.
"I really didn't know what to expect at first," Kirk said. "I would just take time to talk with him about what I see so I could help him get acclimated. We worked together (last) summer doing seven-on-seven (passing drills), getting the timing down, and he's gotten better as he's gotten more game reps. There have been growing pains but we just work through that."
"The hard part for us is managing everybody else's expectations," said Melissa Kirk, Christian's mother. "When it's just us as family, things are OK. We understand the importance of his leadership and communicating with coaches. But then you have all the people on the outside bringing in the negativity, saying things like, 'Why aren't they throwing him the ball?' or 'They're ruining his stats.' We can't protect him from everything but we know he's heard those things. We see how he's impacting the games even when he's not catching the ball."
The great thing about Kirk is there really isn't too much that can dampen his spirits. He came to A&M from Saguaro High in Scottsdale, Ariz., because he wanted the challenge of playing in the Southeastern Conference. Kirk showed up determined to contribute right away and he's thrived as a slot receiver ever since. He's got a knack for understanding the big picture and a gift for keeping his mind focused on whatever he's trying to accomplish.