According to multiple sources, including himself, Indianapolis (IN) Lawrence Central ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. committed to Michigan while on an unofficial visit today. The Wolverines got in on Kirkland at just the right time; after Michigan offered in early April, he picked up subsequent offers from Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Oregon, and appeared on the verge of many more.
Kirkland originally planned to make a May 30th decision, but called that off after fielding the Texas offer. Once again, though, the coaches made a huge impact during a campus visit:
The importance of getting a prospect on campus. Darrin Kirkland Jr. said he didn't go up to Ann Arbor with plans to commit today.
— Tom VanHaaren (@TomVH) May 18, 2014
So did Michigan, period, per 247's Steve Wiltfong:
"As soon as I saw the Block M on campus, I knew I was committing on this trip," Kirkland said. "I felt great about Michigan. My parents really like Michigan and I'm excited to be a part of the Michigan program."
Kirkland becomes the seventh member of the 2015 class and the first at linebacker.
4*, #5 MLB,
4*, #6 ILB,
4*, 81, #7 ILB,
|4*, 90, #7 ILB||
4*, #5 ILB,
Kirkland is universally considered one of the top seven inside linebackers in his class, with the only variance being how highly each service considers that position group as a whole—the #5 ILB spot on Rivals puts him at #153 overall, while only the top four ILBs crack the Top247. Put it all together and Kirkland falls just within the top 200 prospects nationally.
The services are in general agreement about his size, with all but Rivals (6'1", 233 lbs.) listing him at 6'2" and 220-228 pounds, a very solid frame for a rising senior linebacker.
What stands out most when reading Kirkland's scouting reports are the repeated mentions of his excellent instincts. Here's the free report from Scout, which lists discipline, instincts, and tackling technique as strengths with shedding ability as an area for improvement:
Very smart, instinctive player who always seems to be in good position and around the football. Takes good angles to the ball, rarely takes false steps and shows good closing ability. Has gotten stronger and thicker over the last year and needs to continue to do that. - Allen Trieu
Rivals analyst Josh Helmholdt noticed the same when he watched Kirkland and Lawrence Central take on eventual state runner-up Carmel last September, ranking him as the top underclassman prospect from a weekend featuring two big-time matchups ($):
4. DARRIN KIRKLAND JR., LB, INDIANAPOLIS (IND.) LAWRENCE CENTRAL (2015)
It was a fast start for the Rivals250 to Watch presented by Under Armour prospect, as he tallied five tackles and a forced fumble in the first quarter. Kirkland was fairly quiet after that, however, although Lawrence Central's defense stayed stout throughout the game. Kirkland transferred to Lawrence Central from Park Tudor over the summer to play in the same linebacker corps as Lee, and they make a formidable duo. Kirkland will play a MIKE and a WILL role in Lawrence Central's defense, and he does both equally well. He has sideline-to-sideline speed and gets great depth in his pass drops. What stood out most in this game, however, was Kirkland's football IQ. His play recognition is well ahead of the others on that defense, and he sniffed out several counters and screen passes.
ESPN's profile features two evaluations—one from his junior season, and a longer evaluation done more recently—that had to be done by two different people. They agree that he's a forceful run-stopper who's better in confined space than the open field. Then we get incongruous statements like this from the first eval...
Closing burst is just average. Did not see explosive power at the point of attack or strong hands and take-on skills.
...and this from the more recent one:
Powers through blockers and scrapes well with square shoulder pads getting over and under blocks; closes off-tackle with deceptive burst for his size.
Explosive on his final steps of contact. Runs through ball carriers with good force.
They did agree that Kirkland's hand usage could be better. Then there's perhaps the biggest point of contention regarding his game—his ability in coverage. Here's ESPN again:
Can turn and get adequate depth in his zone drops while displaying a nose for the ball and the strength to collision and reroute shorter crossing routes. He does show some wasted motion breaking forward. We do not see the hip fluidity that projects well as a man-to-man linebacker at the college level. Shows limitations in space. Flashes good timing, closing burst and effort as a blitzer and appears to have more upside in this facet than in coverage on 3rd down.
While this doesn't totally answer the questions about Kirkland's man-to-man ability—especially in pads vs. no pads—247's J.C. Shurburtt repeated the praise for his ball skills after the 2013 Columbus NFTC:
Top247 prospect Darrin Kirkland Jr. (Indianapolis, Ind./Park Tudor) surprised with his outstanding coverage ability- batting down ball after ball.
This spring, at the Rivals camp in Columbus, Kirkland took home position MVP honors and the top ranking among defenders at the camp by once again showing off his coverage ability ($):
Kirkland proved to be the best linebacker in a loaded group. The Rivals250 member has excellent footwork and was putting on a clinic during the position drills portion for the camp. When it came time for one-on-ones, Kirkland stepped up to every challenger. He showed that he has the speed to run with any running back or tight end and was able to make some plays on the ball while it was in the air. Kirkland broke up a number of passes en route to winning the linebacker MVP award.
It sounds like Kirkland may have some limitations athletically, namely concerning his hip flexibility and straight-line speed, but he appears to make up for a lot of that with his technique and instincts.
Meanwhile, there's little question about what he can do as a run-stuffer. From 247's Clint Brewster's film evaluation ($):
Kirkland Jr. doesn’t miss tackles and plays with his head up. Stays square and drives through the ball-carrier when he tackles. Good form and gets underneath his opponent.
Striking Ability 8
Shows nice explosive power when he makes contact and stays the attacker. Closes on the ball-carrier quickly.
Brewster concludes that while Kirkland is "not the most talented all around linebacker," he "does everything right and constantly diagnoses action correctly," then chooses for his player comparison... David Harris. Yes, please. I'll have another.
If everything above screams MIDDLE LINEBACKER to you, you're not alone. A squat, powerful run-stuffer with great instincts but perhaps not the most fluid athleticism is a MIKE until proven otherwise, and given his blitzing ability he should be able to fit there whether U-M sticks with the 4-3 over or goes back to an under front.
As mentioned above, Michigan got in on Kirkland just as he started to blow up on the recruiting trail. His other offers included Georgia Tech, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Mississippi, NC State, Nebraska, North Carolina, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin.
According to TomVH, that list was likely to grow when Kirkland made his pledge:
Darrin Kirkland Jr had started to get some big offers and interest, it's a big deal for Michigan to get him now.
— Tom VanHaaren (@TomVH) May 18, 2014
While U-M may have to sweat out Kirkland fielding prestigious offers until Signing Day, the fact that he committed despite recent offers from the likes of Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas—the last of which he called a "game changer" when it came through in late April—is a very good sign.
Lawrence Central plays in Indiana's largest division, and they've been a relatively successful program in recent years, winning the state championship in 2012. Kirkland transferred to LC for the 2013 season, and after losing several key pieces they fell to a 3-7 record last season.
Kirkland is the first four-star produced by the school in the Rivals era. The most prominent prospect to come out of the school in recent years is current Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson.
Kirkland recorded 110 tackles and eight sacks en route to All-State honors in 2013, per 247.
FAKE 40 TIME
Kirkland supposedly ran a 4.58 at Louisville's camp last summer, though it's unclear whether that's hand-timed or electronic. That'd be quite fast for a linebacker his size, though he does display impressive burst; I'll give it three FAKEs out of five.
Junior highlights and single-game cut-ups are available on Kirkland's Hudl page.
PREDICTION BASED ON FLIMSY EVIDENCE
With Michigan's glut of linebacker prospects from recent classes, Kirkland will almost certainly be afforded a redshirt year in 2015, when the open spots vacated by Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan will be competed for by Ben Gedeon, Joe Bolden, Michael Ferns, and Ben Gedeon, in all likelihood.
With Kirkland slotting in to the MIKE spot, he's either going to have to beat out an older player or wait his turn for a couple years before grabbing a starting spot. Program depth is a beautiful thing. He certainly has the size and instincts necessary to play early if necessary, though, so don't rule out the possibilty that he grabs some early PT.
UPSHOT FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS
Michigan now has seven commits in the 2015 class and, according to our count, five scholarships remaining—that number will assuredly grow by NSD. With Kirkland in the fold, they're set at inside linebacker. Positions of need moving forward include running back, receiver, tight end, offensive tackle, weakside DE, and outside linebacker; Michigan may also look to add another defensive back if Shaun Crawford eventually decommits, though the need there isn't huge either way.