Wideout Keith Kirkwood 'singled' out at Temple | Mike Kern

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Temple's Keith Kirkwood, who wore No. 89 last season, have been issued No. 5 this season - and honor on a team where only the top players wear single-digit numbers .

SO WHAT'S in a numeral anyhow?

Well, when it comes to Temple football, it can be a pretty serious deal. If you get to wear a single digit on your jersey, it means everything. And you have to earn the right, by either a vote of your teammates or, in certain cases, an act of the coaching staff. It's a distinction that's never been taken casually. Because those numbers have gone to the nine guys judged to be the team's toughest.

Since he transferred to North Broad Street from Hawaii in 2015, New Jersey native Keith Kirkwood has worn No. 89. He did so to honor his grandmother, who was that age when he headed off to college. She's now 94. But the senior wide receiver is now wearing 5, which last year belonged to senior running back Jahad Thomas.

First-year head coach Geoff Collins, a friend of former coach Matt Rhule (now at Baylor), made the decision. Kirkwood knows what goes with that. And he's more than willing to accept all the added obligation.

"I was never too big of a numbers guy," said the 6-3, 220-pound Kirkwood, who went to Neptune High School in Monmouth County, following a recent spring-practice session. "I wore 89 for a purpose. At the time, it was just a blessing. When I went to my locker, I felt it was something that was going to drive me, to get to where I am today . . . I want to keep the legend going on."

Wideout is considered a position of strength for the defending American Athletic Conference champions, who are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time ever and will open Sept. 2 at Notre Dame (4-8 a year ago). Ventell Bryant, Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings are all back. Together, they combined for 123 catches and a dozen touchdowns. And there's plenty of promising depth behind them.

Kirkwood, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2015 opener, had 42 receptions for 648 yards and four scores last year. The Owls will be breaking in a new quarterback to replace four-year starter Phillip Walker, and also have a new offensive coordinator (Dave Patenaude) and wideouts coach (Stan Hixon). Whoever emerges from the five QB candidates, it would obviously help if people can make plays around them. And a lot of that starts right now.

"I try to bring a positive vibe every single day," said Kirkwood, a really good basketball player who didn't play football until he was a senior at Neptune. "People were telling me that they'd love to see me get a single digit. I've been working hard ever since that Wake Forest game (bowl loss). I hope my energy is having an impact. I'm one of the older guys. It's up to us to show the way.

"Sometimes I didn't see myself as a leader. I'd get down on myself. But I guess you have to work your way up as you go along. I've seen it happen to other guys who were here before me. And that rubs off. When I first got here, someone I really looked after was Jalen Fitzpatrick. He wore 5. I would stay late with him and John Christopher. They were smart. They knew the playbook. I tried to learn from them. Now I have to pass that on to the guys coming up behind me . . .

"Five is my mother's favorite number, too. That makes it really special."

Interestingly, that's the word Collins used to describe Kirkwood.

"From the time we got here, his approach on a daily basis has really set him apart," said the former Florida defensive coordinator. "He's focused, he's driven, he cares, he's a great teammate, he positively affects the locker room. He's everything you want as a coach. The football stuff is going to take care of itself. But we'll tell them that how you do anything is how you do everything.

"He's an hour and a half early in the training room, making sure his body is pre-habbed. Then he stays afterward and does the same thing to make sure it's recovered. He's already acting like a pro, doing what it takes to play at an elite level. He's take on that role, 100 percent. He takes care of business. It's a pleasure to be around guys like that, and watch them compete."

Despite the success, the Owls lost their last two games in 2015. And last year didn't end the way they wanted, either, although Rhule's departure might have at least been a mitigating factor. Hey, welcome to the big time. Collins is the fourth straight first-time coach to take over the program. Things worked out pretty well for the ones who preceeded him. Maybe as long as you surround yourself with enough difference-makers.

That's obviously what Kirkwood - who has a degree in criminal justice and is looking to get a master's in sports business with an eye toward one day putting it to use working for the NCAA - sees himself being.

"Our program's on the incline," he said. "We want to make this year even better. I want to be one of the top receivers in the country. That's the way you have to think. It's crazy that coach (Rhule) left, but that's life. Things happen. Things change. You have to adapt and adjust. It was a bittersweet moment. But all we can do now is stack days. If we look too far ahead, that'll push us back. There's no shortcuts.

"We have to focus on finishing. We've kind of lacked that a little bit. Whatever we do, we have to go out with a win. I want to end my career the right way. I love this thing. I grew up dreaming of being an NBA athlete. Football was something I just did for fun. But my coach (Mark Ciccotelli) saw something in me. Everything he said was right. I was a little bit small to be a power forward, and not shifty enough to be a point guard. I was long and tall."

So he went from playing on AAU teams with current NBAers Karl-Anthony Towns, DeAndre Bembry and Wade Baldwin to being a part of the best two-year run in Temple history.

And in between he even got to spend a year in Honolulu.

"I miss the palm trees," he conceded with a smile. "And I miss my family coming out to visit me. But I don't miss being alone."

He's found his place. And a different uniform. Looks good on him.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn