FAYETTEVILLE — Designated hitter Krisjon Wilkerson’s route to the Arkansas baseball program began in an unlikely place.
Mississippi State’s football practice field.
The record-setting high school wide receiver had aspirations of playing Southeastern Conference football. So he walked on as a wide receiver at Mississippi State in 2010, spending a year in coach Dan Mullen’s program.
“It was tough. It definitely challenges you,” Wilkerson said, looking back at his college football experience. “I did a full redshirt year there, got a lot stronger, faster, that kind of thing. It was a great experience.”
But it wouldn’t last. It didn’t take long for Wilkerson — who also redshirted with the baseball program his first year — to realize his future was in another sport. The Mississippi native will get another chance to prove it this weekend, when he returns to Starkville, Miss., as Arkansas (16-8, 3-3 in SEC) begins a three-game series against No. 16 Mississippi State (18-9, 4-2) at 6 p.m. Friday night.
The former Bulldog has found a place in Arkansas’ lineup during his first season with the program. Wilkerson ranks fourth in batting average (.295), fifth in on-base percentage (.386), and his homecoming performance could be key as the Razorbacks face a ranked opponent for the first time this season.
“I’ve definitely been looking forward to this for awhile,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a great venue for baseball, great fans. But it’s going to be a great opportunity to go back.”
Wilkerson went to Mississippi State after catching 109 receptions for 2,114 yards with 25 touchdowns as a senior at St. Stanislaus High in Bay St. Louis, Miss. His quarterback was Dylan Favre — former NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s nephew — and the duo led St. Stanislaus to a state championship in 2009.
Wilkerson also played baseball in high school, but said football was his preference at the time. He worked through a redshirt year in 2010, then spent the spring with the baseball team. While there, Wilkerson realized he had a better future in the sport.
“I made that decision the summer going into my redshirt freshman year,” Wilkerson said. “I talked to people close to me and that was the direction I wanted to go in.”
Wilkerson was with Mississippi State’s baseball team in the fall of 2011, but didn’t see much opportunity for playing time after it ended. So Wilkerson made another decision, transferring to Pearl River Community College in time for the 2012 season.
Wilkerson hit .268 in his first season at Pearl River. He was named a JUCO All-American as a sophomore after batting .341 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI.
Wilkerson said junior college proved to be a “great step,” leading him to an opportunity to return to the SEC at Arkansas. Once he arrived, it didn’t take Wilkerson long to make an impression on his new teammates.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said. “He gives you quality at-bats pretty much every day. He brings the same attitude every day. That’s just something that you like. He’s a really consistent threat in the lineup.”
Said pitcher James Teague: “Throughout the fall and into the spring, K.J. was a tough out. He had my number pretty well so I felt like he was going to have a good season.”
Wilkerson had six hits, including a home run, during Arkansas’ opening series against Appalachian State. He missed the second series with a minor injury, then had had to work through a slump the next few weeks. Wilkerson was 0 for 15 at one point before snapping out of it against Alabama last weekend.
In fact, his triple last Sunday proved to be the biggest hit of the series. Wilkerson eventually scored on a groundout and the run held up during the 1-0 win.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is hoping Wilkerson will continue to produce this weekend after attributing the struggles to nerves when SEC play began.
“Hopefully he’ll stay calm,” Van Horn said. “He got himself a little too wound up for the first series at Florida and it didn’t go well for him. It’s the SEC and he’s always wanted to play in it. He grew up in SEC country down there in Mississippi. … I’m sure he’s very excited to get back down there and see some friends and relatives.”
Wilkerson said he was appreciative of the opportunity to play both sports during his year and-a-half at Mississippi State. He still has plenty of friends at the school, too. It includes pitcher Jacob Lindgren, who was his high school teammate.
Wilkerson watched with pride as Lindgren and the Bulldogs reached the College World Series final last season. Mississippi State fell short of the national championship, but Wilkerson said it was “amazing what they accomplished.”
He won’t be cheering for the Bulldogs again this weekend, though. Wilkerson may have fond memories at Mississippi State, but said his future is with the Razorbacks.
“Arkansas is a great place to play baseball,” Wilkerson said. “Great teammates and I love the city, love the fans. … I’m a Razorback now.”