The Heart and Soul of Nation's Surprise Contender: Texas A&M's Christian Kirk

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterOctober 20, 2016

Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk
Texas A&M WR Christian KirkButch Dill/Getty Images

From the moment he stepped on the football field as a fourth-grader, Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk had it.

The 5'11", 200-pound sophomore from Scottsdale, Arizona, has a team-high 40 catches for 352 yards and four touchdowns, is averaging 8.4 yards per carry and will lead his team into Tuscaloosa against top-ranked Alabama this weekend with an unblemished 6-0 record and the No. 6 ranking according to both major polls.

"They're dynamic," Kirk said of Alabama's defensive backs. "They're all over the field, they're rangy, they're physical and—like everybody has seen—they're even dynamic with the ball in their hands. It's going to be a big challenge for us this week, and we're looking forward to the week of preparation and getting out there Saturday."

The Aggies lost five of their last eight games last year, lost quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray to transfers and changed offensive coordinators after the bowl game. They then endured a tumultuous offseason that included an assistant subtweeting a prospect who decommitted, two more assistants presenting an inappropriate PowerPoint presentation at a female fan event, and landed head coach Kevin Sumlin on one of the hottest seats in the country.

Yet, to the surprise of nearly everyone outside of College Station, here they are, unbeaten and fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Aggies are dreaming big, which is par for the course for Kirk—one of the leaders of the new-look Aggies.

Christian Kirk and Jason Mohns when Kirk was in 7th grade
Christian Kirk and Jason Mohns when Kirk was in 7th gradeJason Mohns

Kirk doesn't have the height and size of some other talented wide receivers who create mismatches downfield, and he isn't going to turns heads when he walks off the bus.

Don't be fooled by his everyman appearance. Kirk isn't your everyday receiver.

"The first time I watched him play when he was nine years old, you just knew there was something different there than what other kids possessed," said Jason Mohns, head coach at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale and Kirk's coach from the time he was in fourth grade through high school. "Just his instincts, his ability, his speed...he was like a man playing against boys."

It never came easy for Kirk, though.

Despite having the speed and instincts of a high-profile recruit, the former 5-star prospect worked hard to get noticed on the recruiting trail in a class that included taller receivers such as former Tennessee receiver Preston Williams (6'4"), Ole Miss' DaMarkus Lodge (6'2"), Alabama's Calvin Ridley (6'0") and Florida State's George Campbell (6'3").

"He was watching film in high school on the guys who were the elite recruits," Mohns told Bleacher Report. "He wanted to see what they were doing that made them stand out. He's always striving to get better and never settles for where he's at."

Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk
Texas A&M WR Christian KirkJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

That work ethic got him to where he is today.

"I was willing to put in the work that others weren't putting in," Kirk told Bleacher Report. "I realized that was what I needed to do to stand out and is what would separate me and take me to the next level. I would do anything to accomplish this. That was the biggest thing—recognizing that I have the drive and will that other guys didn't have."

It all worked out.

He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona, an Under Armour All-American, and he attended The Opening in Oregon prior to his senior year of high school in 2014.

"One of the reasons he came here is because he felt comfortable here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's a great teammate."

When he got his first chance to make an impression at the college level, he made a splash.

Kirk had six catches for 106 yards and a touchdown in his first college game—a wild 38-17 Texas A&M win over Arizona State at NRG Stadium in Houston on opening night 2015. His big impact, though, came on special teams, when he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown to give his new team a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.

"I didn't expect any of that to happen in my first game," Kirk said. "It caught me by surprise as much as it did everybody else."

Everybody, including those who helped get him to the big stage.

"He kind of made three or four guys miss and just took off, and my eyes just kind of welled up with tears," said Mohns, who organized a viewing party for Kirk's old high school teammates. "This kid's been doing this every step of the way. We knew he was special, but until you see it happen at that level, you're never quite sure."

It was only the beginning of a special season in which Kirk had 1,009 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns, averaged 24.36 yards per punt, scored twice on punt returns and was named a second-team All-SEC receiver and return specialist by the conference's coaches.

"What a lot of people don't see is I haven't seen a guy that young work at it like he does off the field as far as preparation in the classroom, his preparation in the training room, recovery, in the weight room," Sumlin said. "The things that it takes for him, because he does so many things for us, he does practice so hard and log so many yards on special teams. Trust me, he'd cover kicks if we let him. He loves the game of football."

But Kirk's first season at Texas A&M wasn't all rosy, due in large part to pieces of the puzzle not fitting in the way they should.

"Christian has always been a leader, and Christian has always been a part of strong teams," Mohns said. "He had a lot of success in high school and was a part of teams where it was always about the team. It was never about the individuals. It's tough when you get to a place like Texas A&M that has so much talent, sometimes the individuals can take over. I know that's kind of how it was that first year—just a lot of egos and a lot of guys who were looking out for themselves.

"That bugged Christian. It didn't feel right to him."

Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk
Texas A&M WR Christian KirkButch Dill/Getty Images

Instead of being part of the change, Kirk became the change.

"A leadership position is something that I'm comfortable in," Kirk said. "I love being a leader on a team. I've really challenged myself to make sure that my voice is heard and push these guys to their limits. They've responded so well."

He, along with his fellow wide receivers, helped usher in a new era of Aggies football that included graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

"[Kirk] gets a lot of credit," Sumlin said. "He was primarily a receiver/running back in high school, and many of his yards last year came off punt returns or screens—where we just get it to him so he can have the ball in his hands. He spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his route-running ability.

"The stability of that group—Ricky Seals-Jones has been out the last couple of weeks, but he's a really stable guy," Sumlin continued. "Josh Reynolds is quietly going about his job this year the same way he's done since he's been here, as a big-play guy. Those guys were stabilizing forces for this football team."

Part of Kirk's leadership plan for the 2016 Aggies included leading by example and showing the rest of the team how to go about business personally, despite already establishing himself as a budding superstar.

"As the season went on, I felt a little bit of pressure to live up to what I was doing and had already done," Kirk said. "It was important to keep that personal success going and translate that to the team. Going into this year, the goal was to keep that success going and not worry about hype or anything, block that out, keep doing what I've always been doing and remember what got me to this point."

The attitude Kirk has shown to help vault the Aggies back into national relevance is a characteristic Mohns noticed long before Kirk ran into the national spotlight.

"He was a professional," Mohns said. "You don't usually refer to high school kids as 'professionals,' but he just takes his craft so seriously. He wants to be the absolute best and is willing to do all of the little things as far as getting into the weight room, speed training and taking care of his body. We always talked about 'prehab' and not waiting until you're hurt to take care of yourself."

Christian Kirk (left) and Jason Mohns (right)
Christian Kirk (left) and Jason Mohns (right)Jason Mohns

Kirk has been a big part of the Aggies' taking care of business in 2016, and he has a chance to lift Texas A&M into the College Football Playoff discussion for the first time in Sumlin's five years at the helm Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.

It would be unfamiliar territory for the program but not for Kirk, who won three state titles at Saguaro from 2011-14.

"There's no denying him," Mohns said. "If he stays healthy, he's going to do big things playing this game."

Kirk's early success is only a precursor to what's in store for the sophomore down the road.

"Seeing it all pay off has only made me hungrier," he said.

Knock off college football's Goliath this weekend, and it'll be evident that hunger could lead the Aggies to even greater heights.

      

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.

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