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OT Payton Kirkland Praises Gators Consistency; Talks June Visit Schedule

Elite 2023 offensive tackle prospect Payton Kirkland details where his recruitment stands with the Florida Gators and others as he nears his June official visits.

Photo: Payton Kirkland; Credit: Zach Goodall

The Gators' main focus under head coach Billy Napier has been to build an impenetrable wall around the talent-rich state of Florida when recruiting high school prospects.

In the 2023 class, central Florida is booming with elite-level players such as offensive tackle prospect Payton Kirkland  who UF has pushed tirelessly for since Gators offensive line coaches Rob Sale and Darnell Stapleton arrived in January.

They started behind the curve but have bound forward to make lasting impressions on one of the top talents on their big board of prospects, regardless of position.

"In general, consistency, love, communication, and trust in coach Napier," Kirkland said in an exclusive interview with AllGators when asked about what stood out to him the most about Florida. "They know they came in a little bit later than a lot of schools because they’re a new staff there. They've made great pushes within central Florida. I say they might land almost everybody out of central Florida."

Set to make his commitment on July 23 alongside Jones linebacker Malik Bryant and Osceola defensive lineman Derrick LeBlanc, Kirkland alluded to the fact that the three Orlando products have taken notice of the uptick in Florida's presence on the trail, especially in their city.

"Me, Malik and Derrick, we're undecided as of right now," Kirkland claimed. "But, you know, we're all heavily considering them and their consistency when it comes to all three of us." 

A staple of the early stages of Florida's recruiting efforts under the new regime is the staff's desire to build deeply rooted relationships with players as well as their loved ones. Those words continue to be backed up by action, specifically in Kirkland's case.

"They speak to mom every morning," he said. "I’ve already talked to Sale and Stapleton on FaceTime today [Wednesday] and it’s only like 5 p.m. right now."

Despite participating in a walk-through at Dr. Phillips' practice on Wednesday — the "School of Hard Blocks," Kirkland might call it — Kirkland flashed his leadership traits both in team and individual drills as the team prepared for a scrimmage period today.

The attention he showed to make the players around him better, explaining detailed blocking techniques and providing vocality at the line of scrimmage to call out defensive alignments, made his already towering presence loom even larger on the Panthers' practice field.

However, that isn't something that came naturally to the offensive tackle prospect.

"I had to learn how to lead," he said. "I had to learn the hard way too. Last season, we had an off-year here, first year in school history that we went under .500. I learned from that. 

"What’s huge is being able to understand the people around you. A lot of coaches have noticed that I'm a very understanding leader because you have to draw the line between understanding and chewing people out."

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That level of mental maturity from a player who already imposes elite-level physical traits at 6-foot-6, 345 pounds is promising for his potential to make an early impact in college. But, even if he doesn't step onto campus as a day one first-teamer, his demeanor will remain.

"It’s helped me for the next level. Even if I'm on the second team, I'll be leading," Kirkland said. "It doesn't matter where I'm at on the roster."

That extra dimension helps explain the concerted interest in his services.

In mid-March, Kirkland trimmed his illustrious offer sheet compiled of over 50 Divison-I programs to five: Florida, Miami, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Alabama.

Nearing his aforementioned commitment date, Kirkland is still looking for the place he will call home for the next few years. Each of the five schools presents different strengths but is equally as intriguing at this stage.

Being involved in Kirkland's process for the long haul as the most established staff — outside of 'Bama — that is recruiting the highly touted offensive lineman, the Spartans have made it an effort to form a strong bond with Kirkland to position themselves favorably for his services.

He credits Mel Tucker's fatherlike approach to coaching as a drawing factor to the school.

Oklahoma is compiled of a bevy of coaches who have contacted him since eighth grade, despite formerly residing with different programs. That familiarity, and the outgoing nature of Brett Venables when it comes to his faith, provide Kirkland with confidence in his culture fit as a "man of God."

Miami, despite a rocky beginning for the new staff in Coral Gables as it pertains to Kirkland, has surged recently following a redeeming second unofficial visit with Mario Cristobal in charge of the program.

The Crimson Tide boasts the resume of college football's evergreen powerhouse, consistently developing and producing talent for the NFL while reigning as perennial national champions for over a decade. 

He sees himself aligning well within the flourishing dynasty at Bama.

"I love Coach Saban; I love his philosophies and the way he handles leadership and things of that sort. I feel like he does fit my character," Kirkland shared. "I like to be coached hard, and being under a head coach on the same type of leadership deal that I'm on, it’s amazing."

He plans to officially visit four of the five in June, with trips to Norman (June 2-5), Gainesville (June 10-12), Michigan State (June 17-19) and Miami (June 20-22) on the schedule.

Alabama, which he will still unofficially visit on June 1, sits as the odd program out in the group as it pertains to officials. He will keep one official visit in his back pocket for the season, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Stay tuned to AllGators for continuous coverage of Florida Gators football, basketball and recruiting. Follow along on social media at @SI_AllGators on Twitter and Florida Gators on Sports Illustrated on Facebook.