Aug. 8, 2013
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 8, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2013-14 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The steady, consistent drum beat known as University of Iowa football skipped a cadence last season, but one of the team's senior linebackers predicts a return to the days of increased tempo.
Hawkeye football fans know Christian Kirksey as a big-play defender who compiled 95 tackles last season and returned interceptions for touchdowns against Minnesota (68 yards) and Indiana (18). He also recovered four fumbles.
While the team's rhythm was muted at times a year ago, Kirksey -- one of three UI senior linebackers named to the Butkus Award Watch List -- knows a thing or two about pounding drums as well as opposing football players.
"I have been playing the drums since I was 7-years-old. I'm into music," Kirksey said. "Whether it's writing music, trying to rap, trying to sing, I enjoy listening to music on my down time. My brother sings and he tells me if football doesn't work out I can always become his drummer."
Drummers Tony Royster, Jr., and Aaron Spears can rest easy. Music is Kirksey's hobby, football is his passion, and returning the Hawkeyes to national supremacy is his mission.
"We knew we were better than our (4-8) record showed," Kirksey said. "If you could look at all the games we lost, we just didn't finish. A lot of people might say Iowa isn't Iowa anymore and that fuels us."
Iowa lost in 2012 by one point to Central Michigan, three points to Iowa State, Indiana and Purdue, and six points to Nebraska. An extra touchdown on five Saturday's and the Hawkeyes are 9-3 and bowling for a fifth consecutive season.
When the 2013 season opens Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois, Iowa has an opportunity to show what it is really made of. An area of strength is linebacker, where Kirksey is joined by fellow three-time letterwinners James Morris in the middle and Anthony Hitchens on the weak side. Last season that trio combined for 332 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 4 ½ sacks.
"Our outside linebacker position tends to be a little bit invisible statistic-wise," UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They won't make as many tackles as the other two guys, but we can't be a good defense if we don't have someone out there who we can trust to do their job. It's an important position in our defense; Chris has embraced that role and done a great job."
The trio of linebackers, who arrived on campus in 2010 and played immediately, are close friends on and off the field.
"They're great players and we went through the same transition together," Kirksey said. "It feels great to play with teammates you came in with, especially since we went through the same trials and tribulations while working our way up the depth chart."
Just as Kirksey learned from Hawkeyes Jeff Tarpian and Jeremiha Hunter, he now finds himself as one of the veterans in linebacker meetings.
"You start out as a freshman and your head is everywhere because you're not familiar with the program," Kirksey said. "It feels good to see yourself comfortable in a leadership role."
As a freshman in 2010, Kirksey was a member of the Hawkeyes' Insight Bowl championship team that defeated four nationally ranked opponents, including No. 12 Missouri, 27-24, in the postseason. Iowa followed that with a return trip to the Insight Bowl in 2011, where it lost to No. 14 Oklahoma; the Hawkeyes started 2012 with a record of 4-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten.
"Once you go 4-8, you want to find a way to have a different outcome for the season," Kirksey said. "We turned it up a notch in our training and we're doing a lot of things different, whether it's conditioning or weight lifting. (UI strength and conditioning coach) Coach (Chris) Doyle will tell you we're going places this team hasn't been before."
When the Hawkeye defense needs a drum roll this season, chances are good that Kirksey will be responsible for the momentum surge.
"He is a tremendous individual who works hard and is all about the team," Ferentz said. "He is a very, very selfless guy. The other part about Chris is that he brings a positive energy to anybody he is with, and when he walks into a room, he picks everybody up. He has an energy that is unique and it's positive for any team or group."
Kirksey has always been on the defensive side of the ball in college, although he dabbled with being a running back and tight end before specializing at linebacker in high school.
"You know what they say, the offensive players get all the glory," he said with a laugh.
Still, Kirksey prefers linebacker.
"I love the action at linebacker," he said. "You're chasing down running backs, you get to hit them, and sometimes you get to create a score. Linebacker has everything you need as far as playing football. You can intercept a ball and become an offensive player, or you can tackle. You want to make the best play to impact the game."
The first of Kirksey's two Pick Six's last season came in the fourth quarter and gave the Hawkeyes a 31-7 lead during a win against Minnesota. The second came in the first quarter at Indiana, putting Iowa in front, 14-0. The interception returns covered 86 yards, but that wasn't the only time Kirksey had a ball in his hands. He recovered four fumbles and advanced one of them 45 yards against Penn State, leading to a touchdown to complement a game-high 12 tackles.
Kirksey will receive a bachelor's degree in sports management in May, 2014. When his football playing days are over, he wants to give back to the community by hosting youth camps. Other options include becoming a sports agent or owning a sporting goods business.
The kickoff to 2013 is less than a month away. An opponent coming off a 12-win season stands in the way of the Hawkeyes ending a six-game losing streak.
"I'm a man of faith, so I always say just have faith with whatever you do," Kirksey said. "Believe in yourself and believe in your teammates. If things aren't going well it's not going to last."
Tough times never last, but tough people do. People like Christian Kirksey.