An hour into the third practice in University of Washington fall camp, Jaxson Kirkland stared straight ahead as he slowly walked out of Husky Stadium, with three trainers trailing him up the tunnel yet respectfully keeping their distance.
It was not an upbeat moment. One even had to wonder whether the two-time All-Pac-12 offensive tackle would be back, let alone his Husky offensive line, which had fallen off badly in 2021.
Yet following an early February ankle surgery, wrangling with the NCAA to return and a painstaking recovery, Kirkland finally has caught up with his fellow UW offensive linemen who launched the season off to a successful start without him.
The 6-foot-7, 340-pound Kirkland finally can breathe easier again, pull out of a stance and hit someone once more and, a year later than envisioned, feel like he's part of something special.
"That created a huge chip on our shoulder and it made these guys so tough," Kirkland said of a faltering 2021 season that ended up 4-8. "We've faced the fire. We've been through the worst of the worst and all those tough situations. We're just stronger for it. Now when we go out there on game day, we just cut it loose. We have no fear."
On Friday night, Kirkland and the Huskies (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) will meet the UCLA Bruins (4-0, 1-0) in the Rose Bowl in a nationally televised game that will be shown on ESPN.
Rather than see offensive shortcomings and the predictabilities that came into play last season, Chip Kelly's team must be rightly concerned about stopping a high-powered DeBoer/Grubb offense that hasn't been stopped yet in a month of Saturdays.
Right off the bat, Kirkland liked what he saw and heard when Kalen DeBoer and his staff took over and everyone got to know each other.
"I remember meeting specifically with Coach DeBoer and Coach [Ryan] Grubb, and just that energy, and it's all come to light of what's going on right now," the sixth-year senior said. "It wasn't a fluke the way they delivered their words and their demeanor, for sure."
Kirkland, even while idle for all of the spring and most of the fall, went as far as to proclaim that offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb was a play-calling wizard, just from watching it all unfold. The typical practice monotony of struggling to get an edge against a Husky defense familiar with everything the offense did didn't materialize.
"The U-Dub has had great defenses, and we still do obviously, but at times in my career it was just tough at times in practice going up against the defense — it seemed like we'd get no rhythm and no ball movements," he said. "Camp rolls around this year and we had some really explosive drives similar to the ones you see on game day. It was 'Wow, like this offense can do this and it's just a lot different.' "
After missing the first three games, Kirkland re-entered the lineup against Stanford and played little more than half the game. The coaches are still being careful with him eight months following his surgery. They don't want to lose him just as soon as they got him back in action.
As for Kirkland, he and the other Husky offensive linemen repeatedly heard how badly they had underperformed last year. Then they heard nothing at all entering this season, which was even more insulting. It was enough to make everyone a little more feisty and motivated to change things.
With the new DeBoer/Grubb offense, they've been put in a better position to be successful and win games, plus they're being talked about across college football again. Yet by now, it really doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.
"We had a lot of hype going in the 2021 season because we had all five returning," Kirkland said. "It was a tough year for the offense, obviously. We took that year, and everyone writing the O-line off and not talking about the U-Dub O-line and not having high expectations, and we're like, "At the end of the day, we got each other and we don't need anyone else.' "
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