Kirkland's Inspirational Approach to the Coming Season: 'I Want to Be Great'

The star-studded Husky offensive tackle has his promising team pointed in the right direction.
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Jaxson Kirkland finds himself in Los Angeles on Tuesday, called to Pac-12 Media Day as one of the conference's elite football players. He has been chosen to sit in front of mostly California media members to explain himself and his team to them. 

The big offensive tackle from the University of Washington and Vancouver, Washington, has been singled out as a preseason All-America and a potential high NFL first-round draft pick, too.  

Now some players might deem this late-summer excursion to SoCal, which involves getting on an airplane and spending a few hours in some overcrowded hotel conference room while answering nonstop questions, as a truly bothersome chore. 

Kirkland considers it an honor. 

He wants to be trotted out in front of everyone with a camera, iPhone and notebook sitting before him. He has an interesting story to tell as a Husky legacy player, as the son of 1990 All-Pac-10 offensive guard Dean Kirkland, as a bona fide team leader in Seattle. 

"Usually they take the quarterback to these things," Kirkland said before leaving on the trip south, accompanied by highly regarded sophomore cornerback Trent McDuffie and UW coach Jimmy Lake.

Ah, but there's a little bit more to it than that for the 6-foot-7, 317-pound Husky headliner. This is further confirmation that people know who he is. That hasn't always been the case. 

At the end of the 2019 season — one in which he started at Husky right guard as a sophomore for 11 games before missing the Apple Cup against Washington State and the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State with an injury — he felt ignored, insulted and angry to the point that he was going to do something about it.

"I got snubbed on all postseason accolades that year," Kirkland said. "I thought I played the best of any right guard in the Pac-12. I was beyond upset when my name wasn't called on anything. It was disrespecting for how hard I had worked that year."

Rather than smolder throughout the offseason, the already diligent offensive lineman took his preparation up another notch. He changed positions, moving to the NFL money role following the graduation of Husky teammate and All-Pac-12 left tackle Trey Adams. He went after his new assignment like a workout maniac.

If what he did before wasn't good enough, Kirkland would make it downright impossible for all of these people, who determine who's who in the rewards pecking order, to pass him over again.

"Moving to left tackle fueled me," he said. "The postseason accolades and the conversations I wasn't in about being a good football player made me upset. I said I'm never going to go back there again and I'm going to make this team the best and myself the best. I hopped in the weight room and did it damn near every day — because I wanted to be great."    

The hard work paid off as Kirkland was selected first-team All-Pac-12 following last fall for his performance in the shortened pandemic season. This has brought him all sorts of high-level attention moving forward. 

He enters this coming season as a 29-game Husky starter, second on the roster only to senior center Luke Wattenberg, who has 36 starts, and just ahead of junior tight end Cade Otton, who has 27. 

Yet that reward-deficient 2019 campaign wasn't the first time Kirkland felt slighted as a football player. 

The UW initially passed on him in recruiting. The Huskies feverishly pursued offensive tackle Foster Sarell from nearby Graham-Kapowsin High School at the expense of Kirkland. Sarell was deemed the No. 1 tackle recruit in the nation. He was a priority pick-up for coach Chris Peterson and his then offensive-line coach Chris Strausser.

In fact, Kirkland, who played for Jesuit High School across the Columbia River in Portland, even accepted a scholarship offer from UCLA for six months because he had nothing sent his way by the Huskies.

Everything changed when Sarell chose Stanford. Kirkland received an overdue UW offer as alternative tackle recruit and he backed out of his commitment to the Bruins. Strausser immediately left for the NFL and the Denver Broncos and is now the line coach for the Indianapolis Colt, and he was replaced by Scott Huff, who  always has been totally sold on the offensive tackle from Southwest Washington.

"Part of me was mad the staff at the time wasn't showing me much love," Kirkland said of the Huskies. "I think I was just a late bloomer, growing into my body. It's not easy being 6-7 and being able to know how I move now. I was a baby in high school. It's so hard to tell in the recruiting process. But that whole process gave me a huge chip on my shoulder and I wanted to show what I could do. The U-Dub was the school I always wanted to go to — I bleed purple."

For that matter, Sarell started 17 games at right tackle for Stanford in an injury filled career, received All-Pac-12 honorable-mention honors this past season, recently went undrafted and signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens.

"We've never met," Kirkland said of the other tackle. "We might have been in one or two camps together. Yes, [Sarell not getting drafted] surprised me a bit."

This wouldn't have been Kirkland's problem had he entered the NFL draft last April, which he considered doing for two weeks during the winter lead-up. He filled out necessary paperwork and gathered information through the UW's liaison person to the NFL. Evaluators watched all of his game film and graded him.

Kirkland was informed that 2020 was a deep draft for offensive tackles and that he was either a second- or a third-round pick. He felt he could do better than that and declared he would remain a collegian for one more season. 

Also, his Husky career didn't end the way he wanted. The UW played just four games  in 2020 and then called everything off, including a trip to the Pac-12 championship game against USC and a possible bowl game, when a COVID-19 virus outbreak spread through the team, in particular the entire offensive line.

It was Oregon week and the UW went through a typical practice to prepare for the intense rivalry game in Eugene. Afterward without warning, Husky players received an athletic department alert of a potential pandemic problem, the football facilities closed immediately and everyone was put on standby. The players fully expected to return soon, but they didn't. They were done for the season.

"Once it happened, it was a domino effect," Kirkland said. "It was so crazy, it went person to person. Every day, someone new got it. We were on a group chat as linemen, going back and forth, and it was a wild experience. Everyone was fine. Guys just lost taste and smell, which was the weird part."

The abrupt ending to last year was a big reason veteran players such as edge rusher Ryan Bowman, running backs Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, plus Wattenberg, Otton and Kirkland all returned for another UW season when they easily could have moved on.

The Husky motivation team-wise has been off the charts. Spring practice ended on May 1, and in the ensuing two months, Kirkland and his teammates have lived in the weight room. The players also have taken it upon themselves to regularly hold hour-long practices that resemble the real thing — without coaches — to be as ready as they can when fall practice begins on Friday, August 6. 

Kirkland has been so busy turning himself into a finished product for his one more college go-around, he's ignored all name, image and likeness opportunities. He has no time for it. Besides, he envisions himself cashing in on plenty of personal endorsements someday as an NFL player. 

"It's been my goal from day one to be a first-round draft pick," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to be be a No. 1 draft pick. I think another U-Dub season will solidify that."

As he meets with reporters in Los Angeles, he'll give them confident, upbeat answers about himself and his Huskies. They'll be impressed with him. He almost resembles a gigantic tight end with his streamlined physique. A recent NFL assessment described him as having superior agility for an offensive lineman. He's also extremely well-spoken as a UW headliner.

The Huskies have been ranked in the Top 25 in nearly every preseason poll that's come out in recent months, appearing as high as sixth in the nation. Long-time analyst Phil Steele considers the UW the surprise team across the Power Five landscape. The offensive tackle likes the respect.

"I don't think the preseason stuff means a whole lot, but it's great to be in the conversation," Kirkland said. "This is like the hungriest team I've been part of. Guys are working their butt off every day. We couldn't have more people working any harder. Great things are coming."

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