Kirby Takes Lead On New-Look Offensive Line
From Former Walk-On To National Award Watch Lists Nominee, Kirby Makes Most Of Opportunity
DENTON — There have been a lot of changes on the offensive side of the ball, both in personnel and philosophy. One thing that has remained constant is junior center Kaydon Kirby, the lone returning starter on the offensive line, who’s slated to start his 26th straight game, when North Texas opens the 2015 season at SMU on Sept. 12.
“He’s the guy,” head coach Dan McCarney said in his media press conference. “All of those guys should be looking to him, and he knows that. He’s not shying away from it at all. He’s embracing it. He’s really excited about being a leader. He needs to be a leader.”
However, before Conference USA All-Freshman team honors and Rimington and Lombardi Award watch list nominations, there was a leap of faith. Kirby knew he was a Division I player, but when offensive coordinator Mike Canales and offensive line coach Mike Simmonds visited him in the Flower Mound High School football office, there was no scholarship offer.
“They were really honest with me,” Kirby said. “They told me that they didn’t have a scholarship for me, but they really liked how I played and they really wanted me to trust them, take a leap of faith and come out here. I trusted them, came out here, and the rest is history.”
As a freshman, he redshirted but he traveled with the team. And then the fall camp before his redshirt freshman season, he earned a scholarship, becoming one of 32 walk-on players to earn a scholarship since McCarney’s arrival in 2011. And the rest, as Kirby said, is history.
“The biggest challenge was getting my foot in the door and proving that I could play,” Kirby said. “The coaches have been extremely fair here. They don’t look at walk-ons any different. If you can play, you can play. Once I showed them I could play, they trusted me out there.”
The only other returning players with starting experience at the Division I level are senior left tackle Michael Banogu, a fellow former walk-on, who made his first career starts in the last two games last season, and junior left guard Sam Rice, who started five games at SMU during the 2013 season. They are joined in the first-team offensive line by senior right guard Micah Thompson, who played in three games last season, and redshirt freshman right tackle Chris Miles.
“In the previous years, you had older guys, guys like Mason Y’Barbo, Antonio Johnson and Cyril Lemon, guys you can lean on because they had been through it,” Kirby said. “This year, I’m the lone returning starter, so now I have guys looking to me for leadership.”
In addition, Kirby and his teammates are also adapting to a spread and uptempo offense that was introduced during spring practice, which has only picked up in fall camp. For Simmonds, his challenge is to get as many guys as possible to be trusted to play in the offensive line.
“It’s definitely different than in past years,” Kirby said. “In previous years, we were a lot slower. Now, we’re on the ball and trying to as fast we can. I have to see calls quicker and make calls quicker. I have to get us into the right blocking scheme in a matter of a couple of seconds.”
“I would love to have 10 guys and rotate two lines through here,” Simmonds said. “That would be a great advantage for us because of the tempo. We’re trying to be in condition to go with one group, but we definitely want to try to get two groups ready to play.”
Developing that trust and developing chemistry are two main goals heading into the remainder of fall camp, as the Mean Green continue player evaluations, before shifting into preparations for SMU.
“Our main goal is to look at the day ahead of us, and if we break it down further into a practice, we have to be focused in meetings and walk-throughs, and when we get on the field, we want to take it one play at a time,” Simmonds said. “We’re moving in the right direction with the offensive line being young. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”