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October 11, 2011

Position change leads to bright future

MORE ARMY BOWL: 2012 All-Americans | Tour home

For as long as Raphael Kirby had played football, he had been a running back. So when a coach at Lilburn (Ga.) Parkview talked to him about making a position switch before his sophomore season, he wasn't exactly sure what to think.

"I was a running back growing up," Kirby recalled. "That was the position in football. But it was one of those things where we had enough running backs."

Kirby, who already had some experience at linebacker, embraced the change and it would prove to be quite beneficial to his career. Now a senior at Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson, he is a Miami commit and U.S. Army All-American.

On Tuesday, Kirby was presented his jersey in a ceremony at the school.

"It's great to be an All-American," Kirby told Rivals.com. "Putting in all that hard work in the offseason, becoming a leading - it all paid off. And I appreciate [the honor]."

The moment Stephenson linebackers/specials teams coach Corey Johnson informed Kirby earlier this year he had been selected to play in the Army Bowl next Jan. 7 in San Antonio is something the standout defender won't soon forget.

"I was excited when he told me," Kirby said. "My heart dropped. I've watched the game the past couple years of high school and I always told myself I wanted to be there one day."

Making the honor even sweeter for Kirby and his family is this: His mother, Marya Barnes, and stepfather, Lawrence Sims, are military veterans.

Playing in the game isn't just a thrill for Kirby. The way he sees it, it's a chance to improve.

"I'm looking forward to practicing against guys the same caliber as me," Kirby said. "That's how you get better. I look at it like it's a learning experience. There are guys I might meet up with and play against or with on Saturdays in college. It's just a great experience overall."

Playing mostly inside linebacker this fall for an undefeated Stephenson team, Kirby has 60-plus tackles and 13 sacks in six games. Most schools recruiting Kirby, including Miami, project him at outside linebacker.

"What's unique about Kirby is that he can play all three [linebacker spots]," Johnson said. "He's a [middle linebacker] with super speed. He's strong enough to play [strongside linebacker] and fast enough to play [weakside]."

At 6-feet-1, 218 pounds, Kirby isn't the biggest linebacker around. But according to his coach, that has never been an issue.

"He has a knack for the ball," Johnson said. "He closes well. He sees the play develop, knows how to read it, then is on top of it right now. A lot of those bigger linebackers don't have his closing speed they need in order to get to the ball. When [Kirby] gets there, he gets there with bad intentions."

Starting his football career at age 7, Kirby quick took to the running back position, the spot his father, Raphael Kirby Sr., had played at Albany State.

"Football was instilled in me early," Kirby said. "I actually wasn't good growing up, but then I got to middle school and high school, hit a growth spurt, and took advantage of it. I wasn't as athletic early on. In like the sixth or seventh grade, that's when my ability came out."

For Kirby, the transition from running back to linebacker wasn't difficult.

"Playing running back helped me," he said. "The linebacker mirrors the running back in games a lot of times. It's been a great transition. I know I'm a better linebacker. I love hitting people."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kneebs01@aol.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KeithRIVALS.



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