Two short years ago, linebacker Darrin Kirkland was a bright-eyed kid who was supposed to be preparing for prom and not college football. Now, he is the big dog on the defense and is feeling a bit nostalgic when thinking about how time has flown by.
"I was telling my father it's my third spring now," Kirkland said. "I've always been good players surrounded by great players and now I'm kind of the last Mohican now, so I find myself being the main leader of the defense and I've embraced that role. I know I have to bring it every day."
Kirkland is now the great player surrounding some talented but inexperienced playmakers on the defensive side. Guys he has full-faith in.
"Even thought it's a lot of guys without a lot of starts, it's a lot of guys with a lot of experience," Kirkland said. "It's definitely a close meshed group and I feel like it's really close knit so it will be fun to be on the field."
And it's his time to be the clear-cut leader. Others look to him and it's on him as the quarterback of the defense to deliver.
"We always talk about next up and your time and it's my time," Kirkland said. "Go out there and embrace that role and be the alpha male we always talk about. They guys I've seen like Curt (Maggitt) Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and all those guys on defense. It's my time to embrace that role.
"Being more vocal and pushing my teammates as much as I push myself. Knowing they look at me to push the energy of the practice and knowing I have to elevate my game so they elevate theirs."
Kirkland battled injuries all of last season. He fought through the pain and pushed through the recovery without every getting back to fully healthy. He just recently reached that point and is feeling good with spring practice in full swing.
"I was 100% healthy about two weeks before we went on spring break," Kirkland said. "It was a lot of rehab and a lot of recovery with coach Rock and our training staff did a great job of adjusting my workout to make sure I'm healthy for spring ball."
His energy level is also very high with the comfort level he feels with second year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Everyone on that side of the ball has a better feel and seem to be practicing and playing more loosely — just like they did in the bowl game.
"He voiced that he was more relaxed and confident," Kirkland said. "He was going to do it his way and I think guys embraced that and it showed on the field.
"It's his second year and as he has gotten his feet wet after last season I feel like he is a lot more comfortable putting his stamp on this defense. It's definitely has shown and we have all embraced it."