As a redshirt freshman, Jaxson Kirkland was the surprise choice as UW's starting right guard — and now he's excelling in the same position (and same number) his father once occupied for the Huskies.
Back home in Vancouver, Wash., Jaxson Kirkland grew up looking at a framed picture of his father, Dean, hoisting the Rose Bowl trophy in the moments after the Huskies’ 1991 New Year’s Day victory over Iowa.
There is also a photo of Don James around the Kirkland family home, and the sport court in the backyard is decorated with a large “W” logo. Jaxson’s Xbox screen name as a kid? “HuskyBoss.”
So, yeah, there were signs all over the place pointing Jaxson toward a future at the University of Washington.
But before Jaxson could become perhaps the most unexpected development for the No. 7 Huskies this season — winning the starting job at right guard as a little-known redshirt freshman — he first needed an invitation to join the team.
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“It was a pretty interesting situation,” Jaxson recalled recently.
In early January 2017, Graham-Kapowsin High School’s Foster Sarell — a five-star recruit and perhaps the most touted offensive lineman to come out of the Northwest this decade — chose Stanford over the Huskies. Washington coaches then turned to Jaxson with a scholarship offer, just a couple weeks before national signing day.
Jaxson would be the last recruit to join the Huskies’ 2017 recruiting class.
“I had been committed to UCLA for half a year, but I had kind of always wanted to be a Husky,” said Jaxson, rated at the time as a three-star recruit out of Portland’s Jesuit High School. “That was always in the back of my mind, and I was a little upset early in the recruiting process that they didn’t show me love as much. They talked to me on and off, and when they got in the mix there at the end they gave their — not really their apologies, but they said: ‘We always had faith in you.’ I bought into that, of course.”
And here is Jaxson now, getting ready for his first taste of the UW-Oregon rivalry Saturday in Eugene (12:30 p.m., Ch. 4).
“The recruiting stars or chips and all that, I just think that stuff is a detriment to all the kids,” Dean Kirkland said. “I was a three-star or something like that. Heck, Steve Emtman was a two-star. .. It’s still a little bit of a crapshoot.”
Dean Kirkland, a three-year starting guard for the Huskies from 1988 to 1990, was a team captain on UW’s Pac-12-championship team as a senior, when he was a first-team all-Pac-10 selection, an honorable-mention All-American and a daily rival for Emtman during their regular practice battles.
“Playing for Don James, the program was built on big-time discipline, much like it is now under Coach Petersen,” Dean said. “That’s why they’re winning now, why the program is succeeding. … Specifically for offensive linemen, we just had a feeling back then that no matter who it was we were going to move you from Point A to Point B against your will. The attitude has to be that nobody is better than you when you’re on that field.”
During the Huskies’ Sept. 22 game against Arizona State, Dean was back at Husky Stadium, standing in the west end zone while being recognized before the start of the fourth quarter as the game’s “Husky Legend.”
It was the first time he had been back on the field since his playing days, and what a moment to share with his son, who was standing not far away on the UW sideline. Jaxson, of course, had to take a peek up at the stadium’s videoboard to see his dad’s introduction.
“Really special,” Dean said.
And not only is Jaxson playing at the same school and at the same position as his dad once did, this offseason he took over Dean’s old uniform number: 51.
“It’s a big deal,” Jaxson said, “and something I had always thought about.”
After redshirting last year, Jaxson won the starting job at right guard in fall camp and has played every meaningful snap for the Huskies this season, grading out as one of the team’s most consistent linemen. While the Huskies have struggled at times on the left side of the line, Jaxson and senior tackle Kaleb McGary have been a steady presence on the right side.
“He’s big, he’s physical and he’s not afraid in any way to get down and dirty,” McGary said. “And I love it. I love having another big guy over there who’s ready and willing to get with it.”
Said Jaxson: “Ever since I got here, (McGary) brought me under his wing. It’s been nice having a guy with that much experience next to me. … I think me and Kaleb can do some pretty special stuff on the right side.”
Dean had a hunch something special was in store for his son this offseason. Whenever Jaxson would return home to Vancouver, father and son would go in the backyard and work on pass-protection sets; and if they weren’t doing that, they could be found working out together in the family’s home gym. Jaxon, now up to 315 pounds, this offseason added about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-7 frame (and 6-10 wingspan).
“When you put in the work, it comes back to you tenfold typically,” Dean said. “He put down his goals on a whiteboard … and now it’s manifesting itself.”
Dean has a saying he oftens repeats to his son and daughter: “I can, I will.”
“We believe in the Kirkland family that what you visualize becomes your reality,” Dean said. “It works. It works in all aspects of life.”
It has certainly worked out for Washington’s offensive line, back then and now again.