Jontre’ Kirklin has taken a long, but satisfying route back to the end zone

LSU senior WR Jontre Kirklin scores the first touchdown of his college career in last season's 41-7 win at Vanderbilt. He said he's returning next season as a senior.

1,393 days.

40 college games.

Five positions played.

Thousands of hours of practices, weight workout and conditioning.

And a strong dose of unwavering faith and dogged perseverance.

That’s what it took last Saturday night in LSU’s 41-7 win at Vanderbilt for Tigers’ senior receiver Jontre’ Kirklin to score his first touchdowns since his 1-yard TD run as a high school senior in December 2016 in Lutcher’s Class 3A state high championship game win over Amite in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Kirklin broke his TD drought in a big way, first scoring on a 28-yard first quarter screen pass from quarterback Myles Brennan and on a 29-yard third-quarter flea-flicker fling from Brennan.

Kirklin ran the last 20 yards untouched on a tunnel screen on his first TD after getting key blocks from linemen Cam Wire, Liam Shanahan and Ed Ingram.

For someone who had accounted for 147 passing and rushing TDs as a dual-threat high school quarterback, Kirklin found himself overcome with emotion when he crossed the goal line for his first college touchdown.

“The end zone felt good, the end zone’s amazing,” said Kirklin, who was still glowing earlier this week about his four catches for 77 yards and his two scores. “I literally almost bust down in tears after the first touchdown. I was so happy with myself. I finally scored. . .I finally did it.

“I came back to the sideline and I almost cried but I didn’t. I felt I had more to give. I literally felt all the love cover me. I had to shake it off, I had to finish. I was so joyful and so proud of myself for going out and performing at the level I performed. . .finally getting into the end zone after four years of hard work.”

Nobody was happier for Kirklin than LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who has always appreciated his willingness to play any position and do anything to help the team win.

“Perseverance,” LSU head football coach Orgeron said. “Jontre’s come to work with a smile on his face every day. Like I said, Jontre’ is like one of my sons. I’m so close to him and his family. We all want him to have more success in the program. It’s good to see it, but he’s waited his turn.”

Prior to this season, Kirklin had played 12 career games on defense and as a receiver had three catches for 80 yards without a touchdown.

He’d also returned two punts, had two rushing attempts as Wildcat quarterback and registered four special teams tackles including one in last year’s national championship game against Clemson.

Through it all, he never thought about quitting or transferring.

“I was always motivated by my family,” Kirklin said. “They were always motivating me and said not to give up. They knew it’s hard, but just kept pushing and told me not to give up. I never gave up, no matter how hard I competed or how bad the situation was. I always smiled at the end.”

His two-TD breakout performance at Vandy was the way Kirklin always envisioned it would be after a standout career at Lutcher where he amassed more than 10,000 total yards (including 7,500 passing) and those 147 touchdowns.

Former Lutcher coach Tim Dettilier said a couple of years ago he personally wanted to see Kirklin go play quarterback somewhere in college – “He’s so much more explosive and dynamic with the ball in his hands,” Dettilier said – but Kirklin wanted to play for LSU even if it meant switching to defense.

When Kirklin arrived at LSU, he found future NFL cornerbacks Donte’ Jackson and Kevin Toliver in front of him, which translated into the slow agonizing routine for talented players such as Kirklin waiting his turn.

“There’s always frustration because a lot of people want to come in and play,” he said. “I had great guys in front of me: Donte Jackson, Kevin Toliver and many other great cornerbacks. I always worked. I took notes, took corrections, always asking questions.”

Kirklin was a two-way player by his sophomore season in 2018, having played both wide receiver and cornerback and was always a willing participant on special teams.

Last year as junior on the Tigers’ national championship team, Kirklin caught two passes for 75 yards and added three tackles on special teams.

But Kirklin’s greatest contribution may have been during LSU’s national title game practices. As the scout team quarterback, he assumed the role of Clemson starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence and gave the LSU defense a clear picture of Lawrence.

Kirklin was thrilled when the Tigers’ defense shut down Lawrence, who completed just 18 of 37 passes for 234 yards and no touchdowns and whose late-game fumble sealed LSU’s 42-25 win.

“I felt like I helped the whole defense, I was so proud of those guys in the national championship game,” Kirklin said. “I felt like I was a coach sitting on the sideline calling the plays. That whole week of preparation for that game I would tell them, ‘Hey, he (Lawrence) could pull it, he could throw this. He could do this. He could do that.’

“That was from my quarterback background. It was like I was coaching those guys but playing at the same time and showing what I could do.”

This season, Orgeron granted Kirklin’s request to move full time to wide receiver, a group lost top targets Ja’Marr Chase who opted out of the 2020 season and first-round NFL draft choice Justin Jefferson.

Returning junior starter Terrace Marshall is the headliner in this year’s group and freshman tight end Arik Gilbert has drawn plenty of praise. The remainder of receiving corps position fluctuated throughout preseason and into LSU’s 44-34 season opening loss to Mississippi State in which 11 different players caught passes.

Though none of pass catchers included Kirklin, he remained steadfast in his desire to remain on offense instead of returning to defense and plug LSU’s lack of cornerback depth exposed by MSU QB K.J. Costello’s SEC record 623 passing yards and five TDs.

“He told me, you know what, ‘Coach, I want to play receiver. I’m going to be a darn good receiver’, and he sure is,” Orgeron said of Kirklin. “I hope he has a great senior year.”

Kirklin’s faith as a prime pass catcher was finally justified at Vanderbilt. Now, it’s full speed ahead to the LSU at Missouri matchup Saturday in a game moved from Baton Rouge because of an approaching Hurricane Delta.

“All those years of me scoring every game and touching the ball literally every play (in high school),” Kirklin said, “and then not really touching the ball as much as I did in high school can shake people up. Once you keep grinding it’s always going to work out for the best.

“That (Vanderbilt) game was like a little introduction, showing what I could do and getting a little tape on myself. That game kind of showed everybody what I could do so I’ve got to keep pushing and keep on producing so it’s not like a one-time thing.”

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William Weathers

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