CINCINNATI -- Butch Jones says the leader of his receivers group, and one of the most respected players on the Cincinnati Bearcats, is a guy who has never played a major college game.
That's how impressive Kenbrell Thompkins has been. And considering where he came from, he's even more impressive.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound wideout could follow in the footsteps of Mardy Gilyard and Armon Binns and become the next great Bearcats receiver. He's strongly built, runs great routes and boasts excellent hands and speed.
Cincinnati had hoped to use the junior college transfer last year, but Tennessee would not release Thompkins from his letter of intent and the national letter of intent appeals committee denied his request to become immediately eligible. Thompkins wanted to play for the Volunteers and catch passes from his junior-college roommate Matt Simms, but he became disillusioned when coach Lane Kiffin left for USC. The standard penalty for breaking a letter of intent is the loss of one year of eligibility; the appeals committee allowed Thompkins to retain his remaining two years because of the extenuating circumstances.
"The bond I built with Lane Kiffin, he kind of became like a father figure," Thompkins says. "Every question I needed to ask, he was there for me to call. My dad was around and everything when I was growing up ... well, I'll just say he was around. Every time I was in trouble or needed some assistance, [Kiffin] was the guy I called. When he left, felt like I had nobody to call. I just felt lost in the whole situation."
Thompkins got a late start in the world of big-time football, and he almost never made it at all. He grew up in Miami's tough Liberty City neighborhood and was reportedly arrested seven times between ages 15 and 18, including felonies such as armed robbery and possession of cocaine. Some of the charges were dropped or reduced. Thompkins was mentioned in the CBS News/Sports Illustrated story on the lack of background checks in recruiting earlier this year.
But Thompkins cleaned up his act and made it to El Camino Community College, a powerful program in California. Going there, he said, was the first time he'd ever even left Miami. Top college coaches would come around to watch him and Simms practice.
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "Growing up in Liberty City, it's rough down there. I came from a high school that was an F school."
Those days are long gone. Thompkins earned a 3.9 GPA in his first quarter at Cincinnati and has been a model student. He has also been a leader on and off the field and stood out last year on the scout team.
"Here's a young man who's paid his dues," Jones said. "He has done well in the classroom and worked extremely hard. Now, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for him."
Thompkins said he knew nothing about Cincinnati growing up, but he noticed the success that Gilyard -- another Florida kid who overcame a troubled background -- and Binns had in prolific offenses. He figures to be next in line, though he'll need to acclimate himself to BCS-level football after a year of not playing. He spent part of his offseason back home running with his brother, Kendal, who is a junior receiver for the Miami Hurricanes.
The problems he had back home, however, seem long gone.
"I feel like I've come a long way," he said. "My past is just that -- my past. My future is brighter than ever."