Friday, August 02, 2002

Kirkland adjusts to new team, role with Eagles

AP Sports Writer

        BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Levon Kirkland is much quicker than he looks. Since he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker has heard questions about his size.

        Kirkland, listed at 275 pounds, won't reveal his exact weight, but hopes his performance on the field silences the critics.

        “It's something you talk about so long and it gets dragged out,” Kirkland said Thursday. “I tell people to look at what I've done the last couple years. To be in the league this long, I'm satisfied with my size.”

        Kirkland has had a tougher time adjusting to a new defense than keeping pace with running backs and tight ends in his first two days of two-a-day practices.

        The 33-year-old veteran played one year in a 4-3 defense with Seattle last season after nine years in a 3-4 system with Pittsburgh. He said the Eagles' blitzing scheme is similar to the aggressive defenses the Steelers used to run, but still there are plenty of new nuances.

        “He looks good. He has quick feet. It's tough for him to come in and try to learn all this,” defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. “He's fighting it, but he's a natural football player. He's going to be fine. I'm not going to worry about him. He makes mistakes here and there, but he knows he's going to make some mistakes. He's a solid player. He's really going to help us.”

        Kirkland has started 123 consecutive games since the middle of the 1993 season, but came to Philadelphia as a backup to Barry Gardner. Though it's likely he could earn the starting spot at some point, he's more concerned with learning the defense.

        “I can't really press myself,” Kirkland said. “I think the guys who have been here and been through the minicamps have an advantage. I have to give myself a break, realize I just left Seattle, my life turned around and it's not going to be easy.”

        Kirkland's strength is defending the run. Even with two-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter at middle linebacker last season, the Eagles still finished 18th against the run.

        Johnson plans to use Kirkland often in short-yardage running situations and it's possible he could get more playing time.

        Kirkland's best season came in 1997 when he had 126 tackles, five sacks and forced one fumble. He finished with 101 tackles, one sack and forced two fumbles last year, extending his string of 100-tackle seasons to six straight.

        “I just have to continue to be aggressive, do what I do and see what happens,” he said. “I'm fortunate God blessed me with quick feet ever since I was little. Even though I'm bigger now, I still have quick feet. Maybe jumping rope with my sisters as a kid helped me.”

        As camp progresses, Kirkland hopes to lose a few more pounds. Johnson isn't worried about it.

        “He's always going to be a big guy,” Johnson said. “For his own sake, I think he'd like to lose 15, 20 pounds, but we know that's not going to happen right now.”


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