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New Blue, 2015 LB Darrin Kirkland Jr.

Michigan just added a talented plugger in the middle of its defense. Let's get to know him a little better.

Leon Halip

It was long thought that Darrin Kirkland Jr. would join Michigan's 2015 class, and last week it finally happened.  Kirkland wasn't supposed to drop for any school just yet.  That was to happen in August.  However, his unofficial visit to Michigan went well enough that his mind was made up.  As Kirkland told MGoBlog's Brandon Brown:

Just getting onto campus I had that gut feeling. I just felt it when I looked at the Block M on the stadium. I knew I could not say no to this place.

And so Michigan picked up its first linebacker recruit of the 2015 class, and a good one at that.

Kirkland is as consensus as players come these days.  A four-star recruit to each one of the services, Kirkland is also in the top-200 players on three of the recruiting sites (ESPN has him 256th, still in its top-300), and generally considered to be firmly in the top ten nationally when talking about middle linebackers.

This relative consensus comes for both good and bad reasons.  The good?  Kirkland is the prototypical college middle linebacker.  Listed at 6'2 (Rivals is the only service to differ on height, listing 6'1) and somewhere between 220 and 230 pounds, Kirkland has the squat, compact size that works well at the Mike position where instincts and the ability to take on blocks from interior linemen and fullbacks is valued over length and crazy Ryan-esque athleticism.

This hasn't gone unnoticed by the college football world as Kirkland's offer sheet has grown in the past couple months since Michigan offered on April 4th.  Georgia Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Nebraska all offered in that timeframe, to go along with previous offers from Penn State, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and Tennessee.  Ohio State was also showing interest and had recently hosted an unofficial visit from Kirkland.

So, the sites and some of the better football programs across the country agree on Kirkland.  I asked MnB's Space Coyote for his take on Kirkland, and he didn't disappoint in his analysis:

Kirkland is a true MIKE's MIKE. Thick, squaty, broad, and solidly built from head to toe and shoulder to shoulder. And he plays like a MIKE too. Physical at the point of attack and through the tackle, he has the short area burst to beat lineman to the blocking area and plug holes before they develop. He should be able to be relied upon to keep the other members of the second level clean as he attacks downhill and occupies blockers, only to be physical enough to shed them and get to the ball carrier himself.

Watching Kirkland's film shows this, and plenty is available on his Hudl page.  Kirkland is quick to read what is happening, quick to move to the spot, and good at picking through traffic and taking the right angle.  Middle linebacker is all about finding the quickest way from point A to point B when point B is often only exposed by reading the motion of five different guys on offense who all want to get in your way.  Kirkland does this.  He also hits when he gets there.  Scout's Allen Trieu agrees:

Very smart, instinctive player who always seems to be in good position and around the football. Takes good angles to the ball, rarely takes false steps and shows good closing ability. Has gotten stronger and thicker over the last year and needs to continue to do that.

Next year when Kirkland steps on campus he will be replacing the then-departed Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan at linebacker.  Kirkland is much more a Morgan-like player than Jake Ryan, and despite the coaching staff's insistence on getting Ryan into the middle (and the issues that may arise from it), a player like Kirkland has more of a future in the middle of the defense.

However, Kirkland will be behind senior Joe Bolden, junior Ben Gedeon, and a handful of sophomores like Chase Winovich, Michael Ferns, and Noah Furbush.  This means that early in his career, Kirkland will likely play more special teams and a bit of Will linebacker to cut his teeth.  More from SC:

Kirkland can be solid at WILL early, where he'll take on a bit more blockers early than his SAM counterpart, but will be tasked with easier reads and being more straight line. This will give him time to get up to speed to the college game so that he can be better at diagnosing plays. Currently, he isn't quite as natural at getting forward on his reads as you'd like ("forward read step"), but his overall short area burst and physical nature makes up for it. To me, it looks more like a tendency and comfort issue rather than an inability to read plays, but all that will have to continue to develop and come more naturally at the next level.

After a few years as a situational role player at the WILL position, he should slide over to MIKE and be the MIKE's MIKE that I discussed early. Possibly only a two-down LB, he is fluid enough to be solid against the pass in normal downs and distances, but he likely won't be a natural coverage LB in the near future. This is of less importance for the MIKE in an over front, so it isn't so much an issue. My guess is that the MIKE typically slides down in the defense or is taken off the field for Mattison at that point, so none of this should cause huge problems going forward.

So Kirkland, already a somewhat college-ready 230-ish pounds should find ways to help the team early before finding a central role in the defense later in his career.  All of this sounds really good.  What's the bad news?

There isn't really bad news, per se.  Michigan is still getting a very good linebacker that is well suited for the role in the defense he is on his way to filling.  However, that much consensus in the rankings means something.  What is that?  SC once again takes us through it:

He does have some limitations though. Namely, he isn't going to be the fastest LB you see on the field. His lateral quickness isn't as high as some other LBs and his straight line speed from sideline to sideline won't blow you away at the next level. He's a between the tackles player with the ability to track down ball carriers on cutbacks. But you won't see him make too many plays by himself on a swing pass or the like. His technique currently isn't where you'd want it to be at taking on blockers and getting rid of them, but that's a typical technique issue for high schoolers that are focused more heavily on other aspects of the game, particularly at his skill level. It's something that can be developed, but he doesn't naturally get underneath blockers and get good punch with his arms, instead he more or less takes on linemen with his shoulder. That will have to improve.

Those negatives and limitations also feature heavily in DGDestroys' quick breakdown of Kirkland:

I think Kirkland is a solid addition, but probably not much more than that. On film, he looks a bit like a quicker version of 2012 signee Kaleb Ringer. He fits the mold of a run stopping thumper, and should be useful against the bigger backs of the Big Ten. However, his game's very raw, and I'm still somewhat concerned about his ability to stack up on all 3 downs. He'll need a few years to refine his game technically, but he could be a solid starter down the line.

Kirkland is by all accounts a very good and capable player, but his athleticism and overall length could hold him back from being an effective every down player.  The technique concerns are mostly standard for high school linebacker prospects, who often get to overpower linemen near their own size and have the benefit of being as quick as most of the backs they face.

However, Kirkland looks likely to grow into a solid piece of Michigan's defense, and one that can be relied upon on early downs to help fill running lanes and force teams into passing downs.  However, it will take a solid step forward by Kirkland in his pass defense to be a factor on those passing downs.

Overall, this is a very good pick up for Michigan, which added four linebackers in the previous class, but only one really true inside linebacker type prospect.  Jared Wangler seems to be more of a Sam type player while Furbush might outgrow linebacker entirely.  WInovich has strong Jake Ryan resemblances, and Ryan hasn't ever been accused of being a prototype in the middle (let's hope that changes this year).  That leaves Michael Ferns as a Mike in 2014.  Getting close to a sure thing at the Mike in 2015 will go a long way toward filling an important role on Michigan's defense as it looks to bend and shift to do other things with its outside linebackers and secondary.  Even in the age of widely proliferated spread offensive philosophies, having a true Mike linebacker is important.  Kirkland should not disappoint in that regard.  If he can show a little more explosiveness and sideline to sideline speed, he could eventually be the full package for Michigan on the inside.

I'll leave the final word on Kirkland to recruiting editor emeritus Anthony Mammel:

I haven't watched as much film on Kirkland as I would have liked, but there are characteristics that really jump off of the small bit that I have seen.

Physically, Kirkland is built like a true inside linebacker, and that can be both positive and negative. Scouting reports listing him at 6'2" are probably spotting him a half inch or more, and I don't think he has the length to keep longer interior lineman at bay. That said, he's built like a bull from the arms down and has the strength to punish ball carriers and has above average explosiveness for an inside prospect. He's a B+ kind of athlete. Michigan fans should like the fact that he isn't a SS/OLB tweener, or a SAM/MIKE tweener, or a MIKE/WDE tweener -- he's a MLB all the way.

As far as his actual on-field play goes, I'm excited about his ability to diagnose plays based on keys instead of seeing the play as it's occurring; he often gets to spots before his teammates do because of this. He's a solid tackler and has the ability to bring heat on a blitz, although I think he's going to be most useful in a read-and-react role (the MLB spot is usually more reading than blitzing). Maybe most important is his ability in pass defense, where he destroys crossing patterns and screens alike.

Overall, Michigan got a young inside prospect with good but not fantastic potential. He's going to provide depth and compete for one of the inside spots (hopefully the MIKE) as soon as the current starters move on.