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From Minnesota to Minnesota, Kirksey shows growth

Marc Morehouse, CR Gazette –

IOWA CITY — Christian Kirksey got pinned by a fullback and Minnesota beat the Hawkeyes last season.

Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray took a shotgun snap and ran to his right. Kirksey had contain, but got engaged with the fullback and lost a step on the speedy Gray. Gophers scored with 2:48 left, and made it stand, 22-21, at TCF Bank Stadium.

That was a driver for Kirksey in the offseason, when he bulked up to 227 from 215. He showed in last week’s 31-13 victory over the Gophers, that the extra weight didn’t slow him down a step.

The junior from St. Louis plucked a quick Max Shortell pass in the flat and then outraced the UM quarterback for the pylon 68 yards later for the TD that sealed the deal for the Hawkeyes. It was the third longest interception return for a TD in Iowa history. The Hawkeyes have a had a pick six every season for the last five.

Kirksey’s race for the end zone mirrored the one he watched Gray make a year earlier.

“I was just trying to help the team, playing football,” said Kirksey, who fought like crazy to suppress a smile. “I’m just out there playing football. It felt good to score, though.”

Against Minnesota last season, Kirksey, then a true sophomore, made his first start at outside linebacker after spending the first seven games on the weakside. The move was made to take advantage his speed. The main job for an Iowa outside linebacker is coverage. Kirksey was hip-to-hip with a wide receiver and basically beat him to the ball for his pick six.

It might not seem like a huge move from weakside to strongside, but the reads are different. Kirksey seems to have found a home.

“You’re sort of out there in space, on an island by yourself,” Kirksey said. “You have to tackle well in space. You go against slot receivers and they move faster than guys in the box.

“In space, you can’t always go for the big hit. You’ve got to get your arms around and secure the tackle.”

Against the Gophers, Kirksey had five tackles, the interception and a fumble recovery. It’s a different job this year. Last season, Kirksey was asked to tackle and came up with 110, tying James Morris for the team lead. This year, he’s asked to cover and so he has 30 tackles, tied for fifth.

This was the first time Kirksey got to run over to a sideline and grab a trophy. He didn’t use his speed in that run, losing out to the O-line, but it’s still a trophy, one that he helped bring to Iowa City after he helped leave it in Minneapolis last season.

“It’s always good to get a trophy,” Kirksey said. “It symbolizes victory, it symbolizes a team coming together. Minnesota had our card for the last two years, so this symbolizes accomplishment.

“Celebrating was the best feeling in the world. You’ve got to cherish those moments.”

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