Washington Tackle Jaxson Kirkland Won't Let Pandemic Weaken Him
College football coaches everywhere worry about players staying properly motivated and physically fit during the coronavirus pandemic. Campus facilities are locked up tight. Public gyms remain off limits.
No one on the University of Washington staff carries one ounce of concern for starting junior offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland.
He has 24/7 access to a well-stocked weight room at his family home in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland. Barbells line up seemingly forever. Mirrors cover most walls. This place puts most commercial health clubs to shame.
Kirkland uses this private residential retreat for an hour and a half to two hours each day, six days a week, mindful he needs to briefly rest. He often works out in the evenings alongside his father, Dean Kirkland, a former Husky offensive guard, a team co-captain, a 1991 Rose Bowl participant and a real-estate developer.
A sense of purpose permeates throughout the customized exercise room, which includes a squat bar and a treadmill.
"I'm on a huge mission to lead my guys and my team," Jaxon Kirkland said. "Transforming my body will help me with my play. There are things I need to improve. Being my best in the weight room is how I can help the team out."
The results are stunning so far. This 6-foot-7, 327-pound Kirkland looks so huge and streamlined, he resembles a gigantic tight end. Missing the lineman blubber that typically comes with a person sporting as much size as he does, this Kirkland has dropped his body fat from 22 percent to 15.
"We know he played like Tarzan," his father said. "Now he looks like Tarzan."
Kirkland has been productive all along as a collegian, starting at right guard as a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Yet he was overshadowed some by departed offensive-line teammates Nick Harris and Trey Adams, both two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 selections.
By the end of last season, however, people started to closely examine this kid from Southwest Washington with the proven genes and the family history of building muscle mass. Pro Football Focus singled him out and named him second-team all-conference, to give him added reputation to build on.
Once Adams used up his eligibility, the Huskies switched Kirkland to the vacated NFL money position for the upcoming season. It's a good move for the team, good for the player's own pro football interests.
"We definitely loved him at guard," said Scott Huff, Husky offensive-line coach. "We're going to tinker around with him at left tackle because we think he can do it. He's really, really good."
While some guys stuck at home might continuously head to the kitchen to make a sandwich, Kirkland ducks down the hall to bench press and make more muscle.
Whereas his stockier dad might have gone for the explosive and singular 400-pound lift, Jaxson Kirkland is more interested in doing five or more reps at 315 pounds. He treats squats the same way, recently lifting 365 pounds. A lot of testosterone goes into moving these weights.
"As soon as he gets home from work, we hit the weight room," the son said. "He's coaching me in there. There's no sitting down between reps and that's good."
Assuming more of a team leadership role, the younger Kirkland is fully cognizant that the Huskies underachieved with an 8-5 record in 2019. All close losses. Too many losses. The nastiness factor might have been missing at times. A known finisher on plays, he intends to address that element with his remaining teammates.
"It was upsetting," Kirkland said. "We didn't finish in the fourth quarter. I want some tough dudes. Sometimes when the game's a little nice, we need to bust it loose. We were too nice. I want to bring a little different mentality. I'm getting fired up just talking about it."
Luke Wattenberg, a senior left guard and the possible new No. 1 center, and Kirkland are the only returning starters on the Husky offensive line, the lone tested upperclassmen. A lot of huge, young guys, even bigger than Jaxson Kirkland, are moving into competition battles.
The older guys and new ones meet weekly online and go over plays that come with the new pro-style offense being implemented. They encourage each other to keep working hard in the face of the health crisis.
Junior defensive end Joe Tryon, senior defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike and senior cornerback Elijah Molden are considered the Huskies' top honors candidates, but look for Kirkland to join them from the offensive side as this season unfolds, whenever that might be.
Kirkland went right to work after watching sports of all kinds suddenly discontinue because of the spreading pandemic virus. The NCAA basketball tournament cancellation was an eye-opener for him. So was the Huskies shelving one last workout for everyone before leaving for spring break, bringing the seriousness of the situation to the forefront.
"I was definitely pretty shocked," Kirkland said. "I remember seeing other schools announce shutdowns across the country. It was, 'Is this really happening? No way.' It's been a huge culture shock to all of us."
The Huskies are supposed to trickle in by June 15 to try and regain some football normalcy. The indoctrination program for freshmen has been approved to resume.
Kirkland remains hopeful that the Pac-12 can come up with a workable solution for a football schedule and that he and his teammates can reassemble on the Washington campus soon.
He should surprise everyone when he shows off his much more defined and taunt physique. In unhealthy times, he looks exceedingly healthy and talks in the accompanying video tour of the weight room of how these workouts help keep the virus at bay.
Yet Kirkland will gladly go from the solitude of his fitness sanctuary to working out with his teammates with certain safeguards in place. He brings plenty of questions about what comes next in keeping everyone shielded from the virus, but he's ready to return to Seattle, which is 175 miles north of his home.
"What if we start playing and it shows up, and how do we deal with it?" Kirkland said. "I'm more concerned about affecting my loved ones. But while I like being at home with my family, I'm tired of being home. I'm a college football player."