Savannah State’s Derek Kirkland stays home to make an impact

That pounding you hear against the wall? That’s just Derek Kirkland getting in a little extra workout.

 

Who could argue with the results produced by Savannah State football team’s receiving yardage leader last season?

“The biggest thing for me was working out in the offseason, getting as many catches as I could,” Kirkland, a junior wide receiver, said after the Tigers’ first practice Wednesday morning. “Even if I was in my room just throwing the ball against the wall, I was trying to make catches regardless to get my hands right.”

Unconventional, maybe. But the former Calvary Day star finished 2016 with 27 receptions for 317 yards and two scores.

Kirkland’s first touchdown was memorable, a slant route across the middle before hauling in a perfectly delivered pass from TJ Bell. The 6-yard score with 19 seconds left gave SSU a dramatic 31-27 win over Howard.

Kirkland had a 48-yard TD catch as part of his career-high 78-yard receiving day in the season finale against Morgan State.

“Derek Kirkland is awesome,” Bell said. “He’s not going to complain about a throw being too far to the left or right. He’s going to do his best to make a play. He’s a positive leader and team player. He doesn’t worry about individual stats.”

Tigers coach Erik Raeburn said Kirkland’s unselfishness surfaces while blocking.

“He’s a big, physical guy out there,” Raeburn said. “He’s our best blocker on the perimeter and takes pride out there. He’s going to try his best to make sure his guy doesn’t make the tackle. As a coach, you love coaching receivers like that.”

Kirkland (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) wasn’t always big and physical. At Calvary, he was a skinny 170-pounder who displayed a toughness to play inside and outside. As a senior, he combined for 1,241 yards of total offense and 22 touchdowns while helping the Cavaliers advance to the 2013 state championship game.

Two months later, he signed with Savannah State.

“I’m from Savannah, so being here I saw I could make a difference,” Kirkland said. “There’s a lot of things Savannah State hasn’t done (winning) and we have a chance to do it this year.”

During his first two years, Kirkland totaled just eight catches.

And the Tigers had just one win.

Last year, SSU notched three victories, and suddenly there’s reason for optimism.

“We made improvement last year and we’re looking to go higher this year,” Kirkland said. “We have all the ability to win.

It’s exciting.”

 

Tigers, Bell shine

Raeburn said the team looked good during its first practice Wednesday morning. According to the Weather Channel, there was 90 percent humidity in the air at 8:30 a.m. when the Tigers got underway. By the end of the nearly two-hour practice, temperatures had risen to the low 80s.

Despite the heat, Bell played like a cool veteran, Raeburn said.

“The first practice this year compared to last year was like night and day, and certainly TJ is the reason why,” Raeburn said. “When you have a quarterback who knows what he’s doing and knows how to run the offense, things go so much smoother.

“This is review for him instead of a huge learning experience. I thought he looked fantastic. His decisions were excellent. I thought we had a good practice and he was particularly sharp.”

SSU, which opens the season Sept. 9 in Boone, N.C., against Appalachian State, continues workouts today at 8:30 a.m. The Tigers will put on full gear on Sunday.

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