Despite having a talent-rich feeder program right down the street at Gibson Park, offensive line coach Earl Tillman has spent the bulk of his time over the last nine years at Miami Booker T. Washington High trying to convince whomever he can that blocking for others can be cool, too.
“We just don’t get linemen here,” Tillman said. “And if we do, those boys want to put their hand on the ground and sack the quarterback. It’s speed, skill and more speed.”
Tillman didn’t have to convince Denver Kirkland he wasn’t a quarterback, running back or receiver. He came in as a 6-3, 300-pound freshman with one thought on his mind: take his anger out by beating up on the defense and protecting his friends.
Four years later, Kirkland (now 6-5, 320) has started all 49 games he’s played in. If he wins start No. 50 Friday night at Cocoa (10-2), the top-ranked Tornadoes (11-1) will be playing for the Class 4A state title in Orlando again a week from now.
“Growing up I always wanted to play football because that’s what everybody in the neighborhood was doing,” said Kirkland, whose current Booker T. teammates — quarterback Treon Harris, running back D’Von Ballard, receivers Lamar Parker and Terrawn McPhee — all played for his stepfather, Shanton Crummie, at Overtown Optimist.
“But I was too big and I couldn’t play. It made me mad, left me hungry.”
So hungry Kirkland hardly ever comes off the field for the Tornadoes. If he’s not plowing over ends at right tackle, coach Tim “Ice” Harris moves him to center where he allows Kirkland to make all the line calls and blitz pickups.
Sophomore left tackle Ben Triolia (6-3, 275) said wherever Kirkland is on the line he’s “the anchor of the group,” which also features junior right guard Jordan Ingram (6-0, 230), senior center Valery Gue (5-10, 230) and junior left guard Deionta Lynche (6-2, 260).
That group is who paves the way for the Tornadoes’ high-powered offense, which is averaging 51.6 points and 411 yards per game this season. Booker T. has outscored its first two playoff opponents 128-0.
“No doubt, we all look to Denver,” said Triolia, the only other “pure offensive lineman” on the team according to Tillman, who pulled the other three offensive line starters over from defense. “He’s a great leader, too, good guy. We all respect him.”
The last of six children, Kirkland was born with a stuttering problem and was placed in special education classes in middle school because he said he had anger issues. He hardly stutters anymore if at all and has a 2.9 grade point average. He scored a 22 on the ACT and will be playing major college football somewhere next season.
Considered the ninth-best offensive tackle in the country by Rivals.com, Kirkland said his top six includes USC, Florida State, Ole Miss, West Virginia, South Florida and the University of Miami. He’s already visited Ole Miss and FSU and will take his next trip on Jan. 11 — either to West Virginia or South Florida. He said UM will get an official visit, too.
His older brother, LaDeven, a former standout offensive lineman at Booker T., became the first person in his family to graduate from college this past year. He was a two-year starter at Georgia State.
Harris said colleges love the younger Kirkland’s footwork and strength (395 bench press, 675 pound squat), but not nearly as much as his leadership.
“He’s having a magnificent season,” Harris said. “He’s eating healthier, working himself hard on every play, in the weight room. He’s stepped up to the plate and identified what it’s going to take for this team to move forward.”
A year ago, the Tornadoes dethroned Cocoa with a thrilling 20-14 overtime win at Curtis Field in the state semifinals. Although Cocoa was blown out by 3A state semifinalist Fort Lauderdale University 49-3 back in September, Harris said “it’s a different time of year” and his team isn’t going into Friday’s game overconfident.
“It’s a do or die situation now,” Harris said. “Cocoa has Dade County talent. We’re going to have to play our best.”