Wide receiver Christian Kirk has been earmarked for stardom since he was a child, and has lived up to the billing.
INDIANAPOLIS – Jason Mohns began with a caveat, wholly uninterested in carving out a niche as the Mel Kiper, Jr. of third-grade prospect scouting.
"If anybody tells you a nine-year-old is going to play in the NFL," Mohns said, "they're crazy."
But more than a decade ago, Mohns was the coach of a Pop Warner team in Scottsdale called the Argonauts. One day, a small kid with a big head named Christian Kirk joined the squad, and Mohns quickly realized a generational talent might be zig-zagging in front of him.
"He was playing against kids that were two years older than him, and you could tell back then that he was just different," said Mohns, now the head coach of Scottsdale Saguaro High School. "He was special. His instincts and his vision, and, obviously, his athleticism, it was just off the charts. It was funny seeing a kid that small, that young, doing the things he was doing. You could tell back then he was going to play football for a long time."
History is littered with pre-pubescent stars that get sidetracked, failing to fulfill their potential because of genetics, injury, work ethic or other factors. Kirk's star never dimmed. He followed Mohns to Saguaro, becoming the first player in school history to start immediately as a freshman and eventually finishing as one of the biggest stars in Arizona prep annals.
He played three seasons at Texas A&M, catching 229 passes for 2,796 yards and 26 touchdowns while adding electric return skills in an SEC that has proven too tough for many athletes. And now, he's at the NFL Scouting combine, mere weeks away from reaching the pinnacle of his sport.
Kirk said he compartmentalized his goals along the way, careful not to get overwhelmed by his lofty potential.
"I set my goals in phases, and they're always changing," Kirk said on Friday. "Once I got my first couple of offers in high school, that's when I really knew this might be able to take me somewhere. When I got to college, there was a plan to go in there and be a top guy. I don't do anything to be average. I didn't want to go to college and just be another guy, another college football player. I wanted to be one of the top guys, and I worked my way to the top.
"I have the same plan going into the league. I don't just want to be another guy in the league. When they talk about top receivers, I want my name to be mentioned."
Kirk played sidekick to current Cardinals running back D.J. Foster for one season back in their high school days at Saguaro. Foster, three years older, was the superstar at the time, but knew Kirk would quickly follow in his footsteps.
"The moment he came to campus, I think everyone knew he'd be the next guy," Foster said. "It's kind of a long line of guys who had set the path in front of him, and we knew he'd be the next one to continue that. I knew after seeing his potential his freshman year, I knew that the sky was the limit for him. Whatever he wanted to accomplish, he could do."
Kirk was named Arizona's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014. His success came immediately in college, surpassing 1,000 yards receiving as a true freshman, including a memorable debut against hometown Arizona State in which Kirk accumulated six catches for 106 yards and a touchdown along with a punt return score.
"He whipped our butts down in Texas," said Foster, a Sun Devil product.
Now, maybe for the first time ever, Kirk is hearing from critics as he braces for the challenge of the NFL. Many projections have the 5-foot-11, 200-pound receiver going on the second day of the draft, with speed and his ability to play outside the big question marks.
"I just smile, because I know I can do it," Kirk said. "That's definitely been some of the questions in my formal interviews, if I can do it. But I know 100 percent I can."
Mohns has been around Kirk long enough to know he embraces challenges like these, and is anxiously awaiting his athletic testing throughout the combine. Kirk started impressively on Friday, registering 20 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. The all-important 40-yard dash comes Saturday.
"He's a competitor to the max and he wants to be the best," Mohns said. "Some of these highly-rated guys shy away from the competition because they don't want to be exposed. He's one of those guys who is better when you've got to show up, when you've got to show what you can do. He thrives in that. It's going to be fun to watch him."
The Cardinals are thin on receivers at the moment, with two of their top four pass-catchers – John Brown and Jaron Brown – scheduled to hit free agency in fewer than two weeks. Coach Steve Wilks said finding a No. 2 receiver to complement Larry Fitzgerald is "extremely important. It really is."
Kirk met Fitzgerald several times growing up in Arizona and speaks highly of him. The two have become friendly, exchanging multiple text messages this year.
"That guy pretty much runs Arizona," Kirk said.
Kirk was asked about possibly teaming up with not only Fitzgerald, but his old high school teammate Foster back where his story began.
"It would be awesome to go back home and play with those guys," Kirk said. "D.J. is a real close friend of mine. Being able to do that would be awesome. It would be surreal, for sure."
Images of notable receivers scheduled to hit free agency