Jeremiah Kirkland is hoping his 2,000-yard rushing prowess last year at Class A Landmark Christian will translate into more of the same in his senior year, now at Lovejoy. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
HAMPTON — Underneath Jeremiah Kirkland’s Twitter handle, he wrote: “On my way to the top! D-1 bound.”
But before he gets there, the senior running back will soon find out what it feels like to translate his considerable skills to the top level of Georgia high school football competition.
Kirkland rushed for 2,052 yards and 29 touchdowns last season for Landmark Christian — a Class A school out of Fairburn. He helped lead the War Eagles to a 9-4 finish in 2012, after their 32-22 loss to Prince Avenue Christian in the semifinals of the state playoffs.
He transferred to Lovejoy, which competes in Class AAAAAA — Georgia’s largest — just before the summer and he’s getting himself ready to fill arguably the largest void in the two-time state runners up’s roster.
Gone is Travis Custis, who graduated as the all-time leading rusher in Lovejoy history. Custis rushed for 2,118 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2012 as the Wildcats came just short of capturing its first state title.
Norcross defeated the Wildcats 21-13, largely behind the legs of former Norcross running back Alvin Kamara.
Ironic then that when Hughes looks at Kirkland, he’s reminded of the tailback, now a freshman at Alabama, who torched his defense in the fourth quarter.
“When Jeremiah got here, the first thing I noticed about him was just speed,” said Hughes who is entering into his 13th year at the helm of Lovejoy’s program. “I remember coach (Kevin) Jones, our former defensive coordinator, telling me that Alvin Kamara had SEC speed. And that’s the same type of speed I see out of Jeremiah.
“He has, uh-oh speed.”
Uh-oh as in 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash. The kind of speed that gives opposing defenses nightmares. The kind of speed that offenses — especially inexperienced quarterbacks — like to rely on.
Speaking of inexperienced quarterbacks, Lovejoy will have one in 2013. With the graduation of two-year starter Alejandro Bennifield, Hughes has witnessed a three-man race for the starting job behind center between Camaron Hill, Khalil Rogers and Quintin Neely.
And whoever Hughes and offensive coordinator Craig Chatman settle on will not have the luxury of extensive Friday night experience. So it may turn into a situation where Kirkland may be called upon to shoulder the load if necessary.
Hughes said his offense is flexible enough to make that happen if need be.
“We’ve always been a scratch where it itches kind of offense,” Hughes said. When we had quarterbacks like Mario Fannin and Kassan Flakes, we were very QB driven. When we had Ethan Waters and Kyle Lacey, we were more of a throw scheme. When you’ve got Travis Custis, you lean a little bit more on the running game. I think we’ll be able to move the ball with the people (we) have and let the chips fall where they may.”
But if they fall Kirkland’s way, Hughes said he has no doubt in the readiness of his new running back, despite Kirkland’s battle with a pesky turf toe injury. Hughes said the toe is healed and he’s “as healthy now as he’s been since he’s been here.”
Now, with health no longer being an issue, the interest turns toward seeing if Kirkland can stand up to the rigors of AAAAAA ball. Despite his 2000-yard season in Class A, Kirkland had his lowest output of the 2012 campaign when he went against state champion Eagle’s Landing Christian, which was perhaps the only defense in Class A that had the athletes anywhere close to comparable to what Kirkland may see from some of his 2013 opponents.
In that early November contest, Kirkland had a grand total of 18 yards on 18 carries in a 43-0 loss to ELCA.
But Hughes swiftly brushes aside any conjecture that suggests Kirkland isn’t up for the uptick of Class AAAAAA’s skill level.
“If he were playing at any other position, I might think that would be an issue,” Hughes said. “But if you realize that a running back’s position is a little bit different, then you’ll feel like he’s going to be all right. Those guys in Class A are trying to tackle you just like those guys in our class are trying to tackle you.
“The objective doesn’t change regardless of the level of football. Avoid the tackle and run to score. I have no doubt that Jeremiah can do that.”