Thirteen catches for 209 yards and two TDs. While those are numbers that could be achieved in a single NFL game by some of professional football’s truly elite-caliber players at the wide receiver position, they actually were the grand total number of stats put up during the 2018 Regular Season by 2nd-year Saints WR Keith Kirkwood.
Around this time last year, Kirkwood was the last undrafted rookie player to make the team’s final 53-man roster. But now, as the Black and Gold begin their OTA (off-season training activities) portion of their preparation before the 2019 season, many eyes will squarely be focused on #18 — who clearly defied the odds to become the team’s 5th and final WR last year.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 23, 2018
Some believe that Kirkwood likely has an inside track at earning the final WR spot once again this season; a notion which was boosted further by the fact that the team chose not to draft another player at the wide receiver position last month. But first, he’ll need to beat out fellow undrafted veteran Austin Carr and this year’s top Saints undrafted rookie signee, former University of Texas star Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Kirkwood moved up to the active roster in Week #8 last season in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles and ended up playing in all eight of the team’s final games, though starting in just one (the 2018 Season Finale against Carolina). But the 6-foot-3 former Temple University star is hoping to make a much bigger impact this season, especially since he caught nearly 62 percent of his total targets (21) for a very impressive 16.1 yards per catch.
Kirkwood was one of the most pleasantly-surprising stories of the Saints off-season last year; he took an incredible journey to just to get the opportunity to play in the NFL. Kirkwood didn’t begin playing football until his senior year of high school (Neptune High School in New Jersey) and initially grew up playing basketball while dreaming about playing someday in the NBA. But after his high school’s football coach saw him on the basketball court, the coach suggested he try football.
Kirkwood then spent his first year in college at the University of Hawaii in 2013, before moving closer to home to play for Temple in 2014. After a redshirt season in which he missed all of 2015, Kirkwood firmly put himself on the radar of NFL scouts after he recorded 87 catches for 1,319 yards and 11 TDs in his junior and senior seasons combined. But he still went undrafted.
Keith Kirkwood with a TD catch on a great pass from Brees. pic.twitter.com/9LtWvfBkRk
— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) August 6, 2018
For his part, Kirkwood isn’t concerning himself with what the Saints coaching staff plans to do in regards to how many receivers that they plan on keeping. He remains focused on the task at hand, which is to keep up the great performance that he’s had up to this point that allowed him to put his name into the mix for a spot on the team.
“My whole story is just amazing, and I wouldn’t change anything about it,” he told NOLA.com in a one-on-one interview last year. Kirkwood says that he joined the football team for his final year of high school back in 2012, and he impressed the school’s coaching staff before he even got the chance to put pads on; he showcased his athleticism in a 7-on-7 practice while wearing helmets, t-shirts, and shorts.
“After I had caught two touchdowns, Coach (Mark Ciccotelli) told me: ‘Kid, you could potentially be in the NFL one day,'” Kirkwood said. “I believed him and stuck with what he had to offer.”
Kirkwood’s first three years of college (2013 to 2015) were lost because of the transfer from Hawaii, and then the subsequent medical redshirt before he returned to action in the 2016 season as a redshirt junior, when he had 42 catches for 648 yards and 4 TDs. That was followed by a senior season in 2017 in which he had 45 catches for 671 yards and 7 TDs.
Have a day, Keith Kirkwood! pic.twitter.com/79JS9rDXWo
— Temple Owls (@TempleOwls) November 3, 2017
Those aren’t exactly the type of numbers that would blow you away by any means, but Kirkwood said he honestly wasn’t really trying all that hard to become considered a superstar in college. He simply wanted to play a major role in helping them win football games.
“I wanted to be that player that was smart, very flexible (and) could do whatever the coaches needed to win the game,” he said.
Kirkwood also stressed that he wanted to be an “underrated player that is going to make a name for himself.” However, the 22-year old didn’t receive an invitation to the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, and he didn’t expect to be drafted.
Kirkwood says that snub by the NFL Combine didn’t bother him all that much because Saints WR coach Curtis “CJ” Johnson had already called him to discuss the possibility of joining the team after the draft.
“Just from hearing his voice I just knew he was determined to get me here to be a New Orleans Saint,” Kirkwood said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted, so I had my mind set that when things all boiled down I wanted to be a New Orleans Saint.”
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 13, 2019
Clearly, under Coach Johnson’s guidance, Kirkwood was able to elevate his play to a higher level as he grew more comfortable within the Saints offensive scheme. Now with a year of having learned the complexities of how the team operates underneath his belt, it’s hoped that Kirkwood could be poised for what NFL observers commonly refer to as a “breakout season.”
Whether or not he can successfully exceed both the expectations for him this season as well as those numbers that he put up as a rookie remains to be seen. But it’s quite evident that Keith Kirkwood relishes the opportunity to play in a Black and Gold uniform — and it’s why he appears to have an “inside track” on earning the team’s final WR spot, for a second straight year.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.