Watching Florida’s Janoris Jenkins play cornerback is like watching a lion stalk its prey.
Jenkins may be a defensive player, but there’s nothing defensive about the way he goes after the football.
“I feel like every time the ball is in the air, it should be ours,” Jenkins said. “We attack the ball as if we’re the receivers. We’re the ones on offense back there.”
Jenkins, a 5-11, 186-pound junior, is the centerpiece of a Florida secondary that has defined this season what ball-hawking is all about. The Gators lead the country with 12 interceptions through the first four games. They’ve taken three of those back for touchdowns.
Cornerback Jeremy Brown returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown last week against Kentucky. Jenkins had a 67-yard return for a touchdown in the opener against Miami (Ohio).
Creating turnovers will be a must for the Gators this Saturday when they take on No. 1-ranked Alabama.
And that’s where Jenkins and his defensive backfield mates come in.
“We’ll play with the same mentality that we always play with, that we’re going to go get the football,” said Jenkins, whose seven passes defended ties him for the SEC lead along with Brown. “Nobody has to do anything extra. We just have to play our game, play sound and play together.”
Jenkins will draw the assignment of matching up with Alabama’s Julio Jones, and they’re not strangers.
As high school seniors, they locked up in some memorable battles during the week of the Under Armour All-America game in Orlando.
But the last couple of seasons, Joe Haden has been matched up with Jones. With Haden now in the NFL, those duties will shift to Jenkins.
“I’ve got to play my technique, but I know I have the ability to stay with him,” said Jenkins, who’s gotten better in bump-and-run coverage.
Jenkins has also become a better tackler, and his total package as a cornerback makes him one of the top-rated prospects in next year’s draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Jenkins rated as the No. 3 cornerback prospect in this class, assuming Jenkins decides to come out.
His explosive speed and ball skills make him a natural at the next level, but his head coach has also noticed more of a sense of urgency this season.
Jenkins became only the second true freshman cornerback in Florida history to start on opening day two years ago. He went on to have a sensational freshman season.
At that point, there might have been a little entitlement as he approached his sophomore season, and it showed.
“He came in here as one of the best workers we’ve ever had as a true freshman,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “He and Jeremy Brown came in and stole the show. Jeremy went through a back injury and is now coming out of it. Janoris went through a very good freshman year and kind of an average second year, pretty good, but nothing like it is now.
“Coach (Teryl) Austin has done a very good job with him. Some of these guys around here get a certain feeling of status when they play very well, and I don’t see that with Janoris. I saw that a little bit last year.”
Jenkins remembers vividly that sick feeling he had in his stomach last season following the SEC championship game loss to Alabama. It’s one of only two losses he’s experienced as a Gator.
Nobody on defense played particularly well in that game for Florida, which missed more than 20 tackles and lost its edge.
“We all felt bad,” Jenkins said. “We preach around here about finishing strong, and that’s something we didn’t do in that game. We know they’re just as good as they were last year and have been playing good ball.
“We’re a little under the radar right now, but all that matters to us is going out there and playing Florida football on Saturday. If we do that for all four quarters, we’ll be OK.”