While walking out of the tunnel at Aloha Stadium for his first college football game at the University of Hawaii, Keith Kirkwood’s eyes met the University of Southern California players standing on the field.
After playing high school football for one season at Neptune High School in New Jersey, the size of the Trojans’ players struck the now redshirt-junior wide receiver.
“I remember to this day walking out of that tunnel and seeing huge guys from USC, 5-star athletes,” Kirkwood said. “[For] me playing in a small town in the Jersey Shore, it was a big jump.”
In his second year as an Owl, Kirkwood, who transferred to Temple before the 2015 season, eyes a larger role in the team’s offense after an injury in the season-opening game against Penn State forced him to miss the final 13 games of the 2015-16 season.
“I’m truly going to make a tremendous impact, as I’m able to be flexible on the field,” Kirkwood said. “I’m able to play inside slot and on the outside. I think this year is going to be big for me.”
The Owls lost three of their team’s Top-5 leading receivers to graduation, including leading receiver Robby Anderson, the lone Owl to catch 40 or more passes in 2015.
Along with Anderson, the departure of wide receivers John Christopher and Brandon Shippen and tight end Saledeem Major subtracts 1,531 of the 3,037 yards receiving last season.
“He’s a physical mismatch,” coach Matt Rhule said. “It’s hard to find guys that are 6-[foot]-4 and run 4.4’s. He’s one of them.”
“Not only is the stage set for Keith, but we need him to play at a high level,” Rhule added.
In his senior year at Neptune, Kirkwood decided to play football after only playing basketball for the previous three seasons.
In his lone season on the football field, Kirkwood totaled 33 catches for 737 yards and seven touchdowns.
On the basketball court, Kirkwood led Neptune to a Group III state finals appearance as a junior, averaging 16.8 points per game and 14.3 rebounds per game in the tournament. He was also named to the Shore Basketball Coaches Association Class B North Second team and All-Monmouth County Second Team.
After his senior year, he was nominated for the 2013 McDonald’s All American Boys High School Basketball team.
Despite his inexperience on the football field, Kirkwood turned down scholarship opportunities to play basketball at “a majority of the Ivy [League],” Lehigh University, Davidson University, Monmouth University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Jacksonville University to play football at Hawaii after consulting his football coach Mark Ciccotelli.
“My high school coach believed in me,” Kirkwood said. “He knew there was something special, and I believed in him. We got together, even though I had a few basketball scholarships, and thought football was the right way to go.”
In his one season at Hawaii, Kirkwood appeared in seven games, totaling 250 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He had a team-high 20.8 yards per catch average.
“I think he can translate what he did at Hawaii here,” senior quarterback P.J. Walker said. “We just get the ball in his hands. He’s a fast kid that can make plays. He can run. We just need to give him the opportunity to make plays.”
While missing 13 games last season to injury, Kirkwood said he learned the team’s playbook with the help of Christopher off the field and former cornerback Tavon Young on the field.
“Just lining up with guys like Tavon, a big-time NFL prospect, got me better,” Kirkwood said. “I was able to learn defensive schemes from meeting with him also. It just helped me on the offensive side.”
Kirkwood also hopes to translate his basketball abilities on the field this season, as the Owls must replace 123 receptions from last year’s team and 10 of the team’s 20 receiving touchdowns.
“Keith’s a basketball player with tremendous physical upside playing football. … He hasn’t taken that next step to be a killer, a get on the field and take every ball,” Rhule said. “But he’s slowly getting there.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.