Coach Steve Wilks spends a lot of time checking in with players. Last week, while Christian Kirk was stretching ahead of training camp, Wilks walked up to the rookie wide receiver with a question.
“Man, this is a little surreal for you, isn’t it?”
Kirk agreed. It was.
On Saturday, the second-round draft pick will take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium for his NFL preseason debut.
“Super excited, I can’t wait,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been excited all week. I just can’t wait to get out on Saturday, just because of all the work we’ve put in during the offseason. And at least for us young guys, it’ll be our first time to take the field, so just excited to get out there and make some plays.”
But it’s more than just the culmination of his dream of making it to the NFL. The Scottsdale native will be playing in front of his family, friends and his hometown crowd.
Even during training camp, “he can look around and see some of his high school buddies in the stands, and those kinds of things,” Wilks said.
The surrealness of it all resonated with Wilks, who coached for six seasons in his hometown of Charlotte. His relationship with the city grew deeper over time.
“The six years I was in Charlotte, being born and raised there, you see the difference in how the city has transformed,” Wilks said. “So I would walk around the practice field and have that same kind of feeling. It’s great, it’s a blessing, and I’m sure he’s just all in the moment.”
Greg Moore and Katherine Fitzgerald discuss the Cardinals’ WR situation and QB Josh Rosen.
Right now, Kirk does seem to be soaking a lot of that in. He relishes the chance to relax with his family during his off-days, snagging a home-cooked meal and spending time with his little sisters.
It gives him a chance to talk about something other than football. Still, Kirk knows his parents are counting down the days until Saturday.
“You can tell they’re excited, super excited, and can’t wait to get to the game Saturday and cheer me on,” said Kirk, who is expecting a “big, big fan club” on hand to support him.
But while Kirk tries to be present in the moment, slowing down doesn’t come naturally to him.
“Well the one thing that I love about him: his motor,” Wilks said last Thursday. “Of course he’s a good player, he’s smart, all that stuff – that’s the reason why we drafted him. But a lot of times you really don’t know what you get until they actually get here and start going through the routine. This guy goes full speed on every play.”
Kirk’s speed has been on display throughout training camp. He’s been getting reps at wide receiver with the first team since the beginning. He dazzled with a one-handed catch on Wednesday, and he’s looked consistent throughout. He’s developing connections with both Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen and has spent time picking Bradford’s brain in particular for more insight from the veteran quarterback.
On top of that, an unofficial depth chart from Monday has Kirk slotted first for punt returns.
“That’s obviously something I take pride in,” Kirk said of special teams. “I’m learning all the ins and outs on the coverage teams and even the return teams, and I’m sitting in on those meetings, so it helps me as a returner being able to know the technique that these guys are using and being able to see it, as well.”
When he takes the field Saturday, Kirk won’t just have to look into the stands for familiar faces.
“Ironically, the two guys punting to us Saturday night were college teammates of his,” special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said. “So he’s got familiarity with them.”
Both of the Chargers’ punters, Drew Kaser and Shane Tripucka, played with Kirk at Texas A&M. In Kirk’s time as an Aggie, he had 817 yards and six touchdowns on 37 punt returns. With those six, Kirk set the record for career punt-return touchdowns in just three seasons.
Kirk also credits his speed to the time he spent in College Station.
“I think that developed in college, just because of the offenses that I played in,” he said. “Over there, it was a no-huddle, high-tempo, and so during practice, it was non-stop. So to be able to develop that, and just be in great shape and go the whole entire practice, I think that’s where that comes from.”
His speed will be welcome on a team that is still rotating in receivers as they try to decide who lines up opposite Larry Fitzgerald. While he’s listed on the third team on the depth chart for now, Wilks has repeatedly harped that it’s an open competition, and he’s liked what he’s seen from Kirk. Rodgers likes his ball security on returns and has been impressed with how much Kirk is studying.
Plus, the former Scottsdale Saguaro star can help his teammates in an additional way. Between draft picks and free agents, the Cardinals currently have 26 rookies on the roster. Kirk became a point-person for new guys early on.
“We kind of already got past that point in OTAs and whatnot, when they all first got here and I was able to show them around,” he said. “Right now, we’re all super close because we’re all going through the same exact things and being able to take this on together.”
So while he’s doling out some advice and suggestions, Kirk benefits from a supportive and empathetic network as he adjust to the NFL, too.
“It’s a lot, especially training camp and learning a new offense,” he said. “Some of these guys, they’re all the way across the country and away from home, so just to be able to be there for each other, and know what each one is going through, it helps. So we’re all super close.”