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Jeremiah Kirkland carrying running load for Lovejoy

Lovejoy senior running back Jeremiah Kirkland has led the team with 900 yards rushing and nine touchdowns coming into tonight’s game against Lowndes at Twelve Oaks Stadium. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)

Lovejoy senior running back Jeremiah Kirkland has led the team with 900 yards rushing and nine touchdowns coming into tonight’s game against Lowndes at Twelve Oaks Stadium. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)

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Jeremiah Kirkland looks to play a larger part in the second-ranked Lovejoy Wildcats’ game against Lowndes tonight in the second round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)

HAMPTON — Jeremiah Kirkland has had his critics, naysayers, haters and doubters.

The Lovejoy senior running back is using them all as part of his motivation.

Last season at this time, Kirkland was in the midst of rushing for 2,052 yards and 29 touchdowns for Landmark Christian — a Class A school out of Fairburn. When his family decided to move back to the Lovejoy district, many wondered if he would be able to put up some more eye-popping numbers in the state’s highest classification.

Although he is not close to those numbers this season, Kirkland has been a big contributor to the second-ranked Wildcats region championship team.

Coming into tonight’s Class AAAAAA second-round playoff game against Lowndes, Kirkland has rushed for a team-leading 900 yards on 159 carries and nine touchdowns. He has five receptions for 35 yards and another touchdown.

In last week’s first-round win over Marietta at Twelve Oaks Stadium, Kirkland had only 26 yards on 16 carries. Most of the Wildcats’ offensive damage was done by junior wide receiver Preston Williams, who had 274 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

“We expect him to play a big role in our gameplan this week,” Lovejoy coach Al Hughes said. “He is a very big part of this team.”

Kirkland said he has been pleased with his output this season, which had been slowed some by a turf-toe injury he sustained earlier in the season.

“It is going great for me,” Kirkland said. “The whole team has been focused on our goal of trying to win a state championship. I’m not really worried about my numbers, I just want to do what I can to help this team bring home a ring. There are no regrets about transferring over here. I want to do what I can to help us win.”

There were some high expectations on Kirkland after transferring to Lovejoy, which reached the state championship game last season.

With record-setting all-state running back Travis Custis graduated, the Wildcats were looking for someone to fill the void in its offense. Custis rushed for 2,118 yards and 35 touchdowns in last season as the team came up short to Norcross in the title game at the Georgia Dome.

To add to the challenge this season, the Wildcats would be breaking in a new quarterback to help lead the offense.

But the question remained: Could Kirkland be as effective on the Class AAAAAA level as he was at Landmark?

His high school coach thinks he has.

“I didn’t see any problem with him making the transition,” Hughes said. “The running back position is all the same on every level — you have the football and you are trying to avoid tacklers. Jeremiah has done a great job for us.”

Kirkland is averaging 5.6 yards per carry on the season. He seems to be the perfect complement to the Wildcats passing attack, which has been triggered by sophomore quarterback Quintarius Neely.

With health no longer being an issue, the interest turns toward seeing if Kirkland can help move the offense during the Wildcats’ playoff push.

It is a challenge that the former Lovejoy Middle School running back has gladly accepted.

“I wouldn’t say there is any pressure, but we know we want to play for a state championship,” Kirkland said. “Everybody on the team is pitching in and doing their part.”