Hawkeye linebacker Kirksey finds a new home in pass coverage


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Christian Kirksey talks a lot of trash to Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis in practice. He frequently gets matched up against them in pass coverage, and the three don’t shy from the competition.

Or the bravado.

“Every time we go against each other, we always talk a little smack,” Davis said. “Earlier in the year, I actually scored a touchdown on him in a scrimmage. Have not let that go. He knows every time he guards me, I’m going to say something [about it].”

It’s a dialogue that wasn’t so common in 2011.

Kirksey led the team with 110 tackles last season while playing on the weak side of the defense, but he is on pace for just 89 this year. That drop-off isn’t due to poor play. He has changed roles.

He now plays on the strong side, where pass coverage — typically against wide receivers — is placed at a premium over a high number of takedowns. He said he faces less action when he’s away from the scrums in the middle and has to make more open-field tackles. He has to have perfect technique, vision, and footwork to be successful.

And Kirksey said that’s OK.

“I wasn’t intimidated by [making the position change],” he said. “I just told the coaches, wherever they need me to play, that’s where I’ll play.”

That team-first attitude didn’t surprise Davis.

“If [the coaches] told him to play kicker, he’ll play it with his heart,” Davis said. “He’s a competitor. He could come play offense, and he’s going to make an impact.”

But the coaches asked Kirksey to cover wide receivers, not kick field goals. And his skill set is a good fit for that task.

Kirksey weighs just 220 pounds, a little undersized for a 6-2 linebacker. But with the leaner frame comes lateral quickness and speed, which is essential for turning and running downfield with receivers. Martin-Manley said Kirksey provides a “great check” for him because of that combination of length and athleticism.

The St. Louis native has proven it in pass coverage this year. He has intercepted two passes and taken each back for a touchdown — a 68-yard sprint against Minnesota and an 18-yard rumble against Indiana.

Quarterback James Vandenberg said people shouldn’t let Kirksey’s size and speed fool them. The linebacker can knock heads, too.

“He’s a guy that can do it all, literally,” Vandenberg said. “He’s extremely physical for how slender he may look. He has got a lot of pop to him, and at that same time, he and [James Morris], they can guard just about anybody. They’re both unique players.”

Davis said Kirksey’s style of play is something the team draws inspiration from, too.

“No matter what, every play is important to him,” Davis said. “He plays with his heart. He’s not even that big of a guy, and to take on linemen and big fullbacks — and lay some of them out — you see that heart, and you see a guy that wants to be good.”

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