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Mythical Justin Kirkland Discusses Transition to Stillwater, First Game as a Cowboy

‘I’m just glad the fans like me.’



[Devin Wilber/PFB]

STILLWATER — Ahead of the Cowboys’ season opener this past weekend, Justin Kirkland was nearing mythical-figure status among the Oklahoma State fanbase.

The more people looked into Kirkland, the more his legend grew before he even played a snap. For starters, he is listed at 6-foot-4, 346 pounds, making him the heaviest player on the Cowboys’ roster and an ideal fit to plug up the middle of Bryan Nardo’s new 3-3-5 defense.

But then after looking at his measurables, diving further provides more questions. How did someone with that type of size end up at Utah Tech? He played tennis in high school? He benched 225 pounds how many times? By the time he actually took the field in a Cowboy uniform for the first time, he was already a fan favorite.

“It’s hard for me to process just because where I came from, like, there was not a lot of media,” Kirkland said. “Now I go on Twitter and I see these things, and I’m like, this is just crazy. I’m just glad the fans like me, support me, and I just wanna ball out for you guys.”

Kirkland said he almost tripped running out of the tunnel Saturday, which probably would’ve added to his ethos had he caused a pileup.

Hebron Fangupo was Kirkland’s defensive line coach at Utah Tech. Fangupo made a move to Texas Southern this offseason, but he still helped Kirkland get to Stillwater.

Kirkland said Fangupo got in touch with OSU player development specialists Beni Tonga, who has ties to Utah. Then while Kirkland was out at a family gathering, he got a text from Fangupo.

“I was shocked,” Kirkland said. “I was bowling with my family, and my old D-line coach, he texted me, ‘Hey, Oklahoma State is gonna call you in a bit.’ I was like, ‘No way.’ It was just kind of surreal and exciting. I can’t believe it’s already been eight months since I’ve been here, it just has been flying by.”

In his Oklahoma State debut, Kirkland’s only traditional stat was a pass breakup where he got his big mitts on a pass at the line of scrimmage. But most of the time, Kirkland’s impact on games could go unnoticed to the untrained eye.

Kirkland’s job is to eat double teams, to force teams to use a center and a guard (shoot, maybe both guards) to block him. That then frees up lanes for OSU’s linebackers and defensive ends to get into the backfield.

Despite keeping things vanilla, the Cowboys had nine tackles for loss and five sacks Saturday. In 2022 the Cowboys averaged 7.1 tackles per loss and just two sacks a game. OSU recorded five sacks just once last season (against Arkansas-Pine Bluff).

Kirkland was OSU’s fifth-highest graded defender Saturday, according to PFF. He graded out at a 69.6 in his 35 snaps. His run defense grade of 72.6 was third-best among Pokes and tops among Pokes with at least 20 snaps played.

It didn’t sound like Kirkland was after too much stat glory, but what one of the most intriguing Cowboys in recent memory wouldn’t mind is a few pastries.

“I’ll tell those boys in there all the time, ‘Hey, if I’m taking a double and a triple team and you guys are taking hits in the backfield, if you guys’ stats are that good, maybe get me some donuts on a Monday morning,'” Kirkland said. “I’m good with whatever. It’s definitely team-oriented on defense.”

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