As a high school tennis player, he was a menace charging the net. The Cowboys hope their 346-pound nose tackle will have the same effect on ball carriers.
Brett Webb didn’t know what to expect when Roy (Utah) High School’s star defensive lineman came out for the tennis team as a junior 2018-19.
The prospective tennis player picked up a dumbbell or two, that much was obvious to Webb. But a tennis racket? Webb wasn’t so sure Justin Kirkland had so much as held one before.
“I think (Kirkland) just wanted to come out and improve his athletic skills in general,” Webb said. “You know, coordination and training and all that stuff.”
Now, Kirkland is a 6-foot-4 Oklahoma State nose tackle whose 346 pounds makes him the heaviest Cowboy. The sophomore plays a key position in defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo’s 3-3-5 scheme that asks nose tackles to anchor the defensive line in the face of double teams.
But before he was known as the guy who bench pressed 225 pounds for 40 reps, Kirkland was known among Utah tennis coaches as the bulky lineman who was nimble enough to be one half of Roy’s most successful, intimidating doubles team that Webb ever had.
“Him and (his cousin Kale Kirkland) were the only tennis athletes from Roy that ever got to state since I had been coaching,” Webb said.
OSU nose tackle owes some of his agility to his days as a high school tennis player in Roy, Utah. (Photo provided by Gordon Doxey)
Because it was Kirkland’s first year playing tennis, Webb initially placed him and his older cousin, Kale, on the junior varsity team. They progressed quickly, breaking the mold of what tennis players look like and rocketing up the Roy Royal’s team rankings.
COVID canceled Kirkland’s senior tennis season. Webb mourns not getting to see what Kirkland could do with a year under his belt.
And what was Kirkland’s key to success? It still makes Webb chuckle.
“All power,” Webb said. “No finesse, or very little finesse. It showed on returns, just smacking it. Overhead slams, the whole thing.”
In addition to football and tennis, Kirkland also lettered in basketball and track and field.
Nardo is the latest coach to unexpectedly welcome Kirkland to his team. Nardo was hired about the same time Kirkland transferred in from Utah Tech.
“I walked into a 350-pound present,” Nardo said. “(Against double teams) he’s hard to move.”
Nardo recounted a memorable gym encounter with Kirkland. Seeing Kirkland’s bar loaded up with plates, Nardo expressed his appreciation. Kirkland said that coaches wouldn’t let him put any more weight on.
There is still a decision for Nardo to make at nose tackle. Kirkland is competing with Collin Clay for the starting job but both players will likely get plenty of snaps.
Linebacker Justin Wright said Kirkland is more than a lumbering lineman. Don’t let his physique fool you. Kirkland plays nose tackle with a deft, agile style that allows him to snuff out run plays.
“He’s just a big, big guy, Wright said. “He’s like a teddy bear. Off the field he’s the nicest, most genuine guy. He wears Hawaiian shirts almost every day with shorts. And he fills the Hawaiian shirts out. And with Hawaiian shirts, it’s hard to do that. But then you get him out (on the field) and he’ll just swallow you.”