About four years ago, Jelani Jenkins seemingly had the college football world at his feet. Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford, USC. They all wanted a piece of the Good Counsel linebacker, who earned 2008 All-Met Defensive Player of the Year honors and was ranked by most recruiting services as the top linebacker in the 2009 class.
But as the NFL draft inches closer, beginning with Thursday’s first round, the Florida linebacker finds himself in a different position, juggling feelings of uncertainty with a firm confidence in his immense ability.
“I’ve heard as high as late in the first round and as low as early in the fourth round, so we’ll see,” Jenkins said in a Tuesday phone interview. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me where I get picked. I’m just hoping to get an opportunity somewhere — although I have always been a Redskins fan.”
One thing is certain, though — whichever team does draft Jenkins will be getting a pure athlete with the ability to pick up schemes quickly.
At Good Counsel, not only did Jenkins register 101 tackles at linebacker and rush for 644 yards and 22 touchdowns at fullback as a senior, he also starred in track, blazing a time of 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“To me, he’s the whole package and he’s one of the guys who put Good Counsel on the map,” Falcons Coach Bob Milloy said. “He’s a very humble, hard-working guy who of course is very talented and concerned about his character and grades.”
Milloy said Jenkins would be the second player from Good Counsel to reach the NFL, joining tight end Zach Hilton, who signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in 2003.
But amid the accolades and gaudy numbers, Jenkins remained level-headed, seeing each time on the field as an opportunity to prove himself again.
“Even when I was highly recruited in high school, I still made sure I was a hard worker so that I never felt like I had arrived,” said Jenkins, who was twice named Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year. “I came into college hungry and was ready to start from the bottom and work my way up because I knew I wasn’t the only highly recruited player out there.”
After redshirting his freshman year, Jenkins’s hunger led him to become one of the defensive leaders, first as a starter at middle linebacker and then on the weakside as a redshirt sophomore with 75 tackles. This all while playing under three different defensive coordinators in his first three years.
The final scheme, a pro-style formation implemented by Gators coach and former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp in 2011, proved the best fit for Jenkins.
“It was a lot more difficult to learn but it put me in a good position to make plays,” Jenkins said. “A lot of NFL teams run a similar system, so it helped prepare me for that. It also showed that I can re-learn a system and master it quickly.”
When the opportunity finally presented itself in 2012 for Jenkins to play under the same defense as the year before, Jenkins instead spent the season learning another lesson — how to deal with the injury bug.
Two games into a season that saw him start on the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List, Jenkins fractured his thumb, forcing him to miss three games. Then, after struggling with a hamstring injury, Jenkins broke his foot, which required surgery and kept him out of the Sugar Bowl.
“It made me appreciate football even more because I saw that it could be taken away from me,” said Jenkins, who still had 29 tackles and two sacks in nine games. “I’d never had a major injury before, so it was weird, but it helped me be a better leader and teammate.”
Any questions surrounding his recovery and decision to forgo his redshirt senior season were answered at Florida’s pro day and the NFL combine. There, he ran a time of 4.78 in the 40 and did 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, respectively.
Now, the only remaining query is where will Jenkins fall in the four-day NFL Draft. Some say he could land in Jacksonville, where former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is now head coach. But rather than speculate, Jenkins is simply preparing for his next big transition on the gridiron.
“The biggest thing will be remembering how important fundamentals are because a lot of times in the past, I’ve been able to rely on straight athletic ability,” Jenkins said. “Everybody is big, strong and has talent, so everything from my hand placement as a linebacker to the little intricacies of tackling will be important. But I’m ready.”
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