Jackson graduate aims to be less Husky

  • John Sleeper<br>For the Enterprise
  • Friday, February 29, 2008 11:32am

OLYMPIA — They all talk about The Body.

The tree-trunk legs. The massive shoulders.

It was The Body that turned would-be Wesco 4A tacklers into sawdust. And it’s both Johnie Kirton’s best asset and his biggest question mark.

Kirton, the former Jackson High School star chose to play football for the University of Washington in large part because head coach Keith Gilbertson promised him a shot at tailback. When Kirton is at his ideal playing weight at around 250 pounds, he is a fearsome load to bring down.

How fearsome? With 2,675 yards, Kirton came 1 yard short of the state single-season rushing record. His per-carry average of 8.9 yards also is proof of some pretty amazing breakaway speed.

At his ideal weight, that is.

Which Kirton isn’t.

After injuring his left leg on a helmet during the Washington State Prep All-Star game, Kirton had to toss any conditioning out the window for more than a month when the contusion inside the shin became infected.

As a result, Kirton is listed at 270 pounds, which may or may not be accurate. Whether it is or isn’t, Kirton says he’s about two weeks of hard conditioning away from being in playing shape.

“That’s a month of sitting in the house or the hospital, eating Mom’s cooking,” Kirton said.

And so this is what faces Kirton in his first days of fall camp. While the coaching staff would love to determine where he fits into the offensive system, it will take some time to find the real Kirton, the one who both bowled over and ran away from anyone who tried to tackle him.

He can be that at Washington, he hopes. Not since Corey Dillon in 1996 have the Huskies had a truly big back. Before that, it was Greg Lewis from 1987-90.

“He’s a big guy,” running backs coach Cornell Jackson said of Kirton. “But what I really like are his feet. With those feet, he’ll be just fine at 240 or 245.”

There are those who recruited Kirton who projected him as a fullback, linebacker and even a defensive lineman. Yet, Gilbertson is willing to give him a shot at tailback in order to give defenses a different look from the smaller, fleet backs the Huskies are developing, such as sophomores Kenny James and Shelton Sampson.

While James and Sampson can make tacklers miss, it is the Huskies’ hope that Kirton can blast through. It’s enticing to envision a short-yardage or goal-line situation with Kirton running behind 245-pound fullback Zach Tuiasosopo.

Make no mistake; Kirton would dearly love to play tailback. But he wants to get on the field more. Asked recently if the coaching staff left it up to him if he wanted to play tailback, but he would get on the field sooner at fullback, Kirton said:

“I’d ask them for a day or two to think about it, but probably would make the decision to get on the field.”

One believer of Kirton at tailback is James.

“I think he can play tailback at this level,” he said. “There are a few things he has to learn. Once he learns the system and is a little more physical, he should be OK. He’s a big guy. He’s got the body. It’s just a matter of how much he wants it.”

Kirton wants it badly, but he also is a realist. He knows he isn’t the only high school star on the team. He will be given nothing. Players are at this level because someone thought they could play. He will have to earn everything that comes to him.

He already has learned that he has to keep his pad level down to better absorb pulverizing hits from blitzing linebackers. Even in the early days of camp, he’s learned to carry the ball higher and tighter than he ever did at Jackson.

He can’t get away with so many things at this level that he was able to in high school.

“It’s humbling to realize that all these people were in the same situation I was in, in that they were great high school players,” he said. “Now, we’re a bunch of great players fighting for one position. It’s hard at times, but I think it’s fun to fight for it.”

Talk to us