Croome: Texas A&M's Kirk has big night for possibly last time at Kyle Field

Texas A&M's Christian Kirk celebrates a 60-yard touchdown catch less than 30 seconds into the game against New Mexico on Saturday at Kyle Field. Kirk also returned a punt 90 yards for a TD in the second quarter.

Eagle photo by Laura McKenzie

It was Senior Night at Kyle Field on Saturday, but a junior also played what likely will be his last game in a Texas A&M uniform for the home crowd.

And he put on a show.

Christian Kirk's performance in the Aggies' 55-14 victory over New Mexico looked like so many others since the wide receiver and return specialist took the field at NRG Stadium in Houston against Arizona State to open the 2015 season. That day he had six receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown and returned a punt 79 yards for another TD in leading the Aggies past the program just down the street from his high school.

On Saturday, he put up similar numbers, snatching the ball out of a defender's hands on the second play of the game and jogging in from the New Mexico 15-yard line for a 60-yard TD catch. Later in the first half he darted from one corner of Kyle Field to the other on a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown, giving him a school-record six punt returns for TDs.

And he built on a couple of other marks Saturday that prove how consistent a playmaker he's been for the Aggies.

His second catch, a 19-yarder on A&M's second drive, extended his streak of at least two receptions a game to a nation-leading 36 games -- or his entire career. He's had more than two receptions in all but two of those games.

His touchdown catch leapfrogged him over Leeland McElroy (1993-95) into fifth all-time in all-purpose yards. He's at 4,360 and with three games remaining -- A&M is now bowl eligible -- he should move up to third.

If the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder decides to remain at A&M for his senior season -- he's projected to go in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft if he enters it -- he would be on pace to break Cyrus Gray's mark of 6,423 yards.

He's also likely to finish third in receptions and yards receiving to Ryan Swope and Jeff Fuller, and he almost has assured himself of having the best career punt return average at nearly 22 yards a return.

Kirk finished with 210 all-purpose yards Saturday. He had four catches for 120 yards, and on his third catch he thrilled the crowd by sidestepping at least six Lobos for 35 yards.

It's not all show, though, for Kirk. He threw the key block on Jhamon Ausbon's 10-yard TD reception.

"The most important thing for me is to play as hard as I can for those guys on the team, be a leader and put it on the line for them," Kirk said. "We have a lot of pride in finishing every play. It's a standard."

Kirk also conducts himself like a professional off the field, attending a majority of the weekly and postgame press conferences win or lose. He answers all questions, always being mindful of the program, his teammates and the coaches. After the New Mexico game, Kirk spoke elegantly and from the heart when asked about A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's 50th victory and how Sumlin has handled speculation about his being fired at the end of the season.

On the other side of the ball, the Aggies for sure will be without senior safety Armani Watts next season. Watts is to the defense what Kirk is to the offense. The preseason All-SEC defender has lived up to the billing in every game.

Watts led the team in tackles as a sophomore and is the only active FBS player with at least 300 career tackles, 10 interceptions and five forced fumbles. He started his 40th game against New Mexico.

For most of the 2017 season he has lined up in the secondary with three freshmen and has been the leader Sumlin and defensive coordinator John Chavis have needed with so many youngsters.

Sumlin told Watts before the game on Senior Night not to say anything or he might cry.

"Armani's been through a lot in the recruiting process and the injury last year," Sumlin said. "The way he has played this year he has moved himself up the NFL draft, but he's also motivated this team and been a quarterback on the defense for a bunch of young fellows who now know what it's like to play football at a high level in the toughest league in the country."

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