Commentary

Big hits making Jelani Jenkins a star

Updated: September 11, 2008, 3:15 PM ET
By Jon Mahoney | ESPNRISE.com

DeMatha's Rodney McLeod catches a slant pass, evades two would-be tacklers at midfield and sees nothing but open field in front of him. For the speedy wide receiver, this normally means he's reaching pay dirt.

[+] EnlargeJelani Jenkins
Michael D. Kurec for ESPNRISEJenkins is considered one of the top LB prospects in 2009.

But out of nowhere, Good Counsel linebacker Jelani Jenkins begins gaining ground despite coming from at least five yards behind. It can't be. Linebackers can't outrun receivers - especially receivers with a head start.

Just 35 yards later, however, Jenkins has proved that theory wrong by making a touchdown-saving tackle. Rather than celebrating a score, McLeod is on his back at the 15-yard line wondering what just happened. That play occurred in Good Counsel's 28-24 regular season victory over DeMatha last fall. Jenkins was a junior at the time, while McLeod was one of the top seniors in the area and would go on to sign with Virginia.

The play, which looks like Batman chasing down a helpless villain, can be found about 90 seconds into a YouTube video titled "Jelani Jenkins Highlight." It's also a prime example of the relentless mindset Jenkins brings to every play.

"It was a great individual effort," says the head coach who was on the opposing sideline that day, DeMatha's Bill McGregor. "It was one of those plays that if you're a college coach and you're watching it, you shut off the projector because it's a no-brainer."

Considering Jenkins had 33 scholarship offers and letters from more than 50 schools as of press time, it's clear plenty of college coaches have seen the play. As eye-popping as it is, it's really just one in a series of extraordinary plays the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has made as both a linebacker and running back for Good Counsel. And though he combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving last year, it's his ability to drop the hammer on D with a ridiculous combo of speed and power that has his mailbox overflowing.

"I put my heart into my game," says Jenkins, who is rated the nation's No. 9 recruit in the ESPNU 150, No. 1 in the Greater D.C. area. "I never want to let my teammates down."

Jenkins thrives as a linebacker thanks to his high football IQ, which allows him to read and react to plays as they happen. And with a 40-yard dash time of 4.4 seconds and a penchant for delivering monster hits, opponents watching him on film must get more freaked out than they do viewing a "Saw" flick.

What's even more remarkable is that Jenkins doesn't turn 17 until March, making him significantly younger than most of his peers in the Class of 2009.

"He's very explosive and very smooth," Good Counsel head coach Bob Milloy says. "He's going 110 percent, but it doesn't look like it. He makes things look easy." "Jelani is the type of player who basically goes through his opponent," adds his father, Maurice. "Ever since he was younger, he's loved contact."

Jenkins began strutting his freakish gridiron talents during his youth football days. Even then he was exceptionally athletic for his size, which he credits in part to karate lessons he took at an early age.

By the time Jenkins reached Good Counsel, Milloy could see a player with superstar potential. Jenkins spent his first year shining on the freshman team before becoming a two-way varsity starter as a sophomore. And even though he plays in the ultra-competitive WCAC, he has managed to stand out among a plethora of stars.

As a junior, Jenkins rushed for 791 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 15 passes for 223 yards and another score. On defense, he tallied 48 tackles despite missing two games with an ankle sprain and parts of others when Good Counsel had a large lead.

[+] EnlargeJelani Jenkins
Michael D. Kurec for ESPNRISEJenkins holds a 3.9 GPA.

One of his best games came in the WCAC semifinals against St. John's. Jenkins ripped off a 76-yard TD run and rushed for 134 yards overall while spearheading a defensive attack that silenced St. John's in a 44-6 victory. The Falcons eventually lost to DeMatha, 12-7, in the WCAC finals.

Jenkins was rewarded for his tremendous season by earning 2007-08 Gatorade Maryland Football Player of the Year honors. He was particularly proud of this accomplishment considering the criteria for selection.

"When I realized what it stood for - football, academics and character all in one - it meant a lot to me. Those are the three things I strive for," says Jenkins, who has scholarship offers from schools coast to coast, ranging from powerhouses like USC and Florida to elite academic institutions like Stanford, Virginia and Boston College.

Jenkins walks the walk when it comes to carrying himself as an exceptional student-athlete at Good Counsel. His football achievements are noteworthy, but that's not all he's about.

He attacks the classroom with the same ferocity he brings to the gridiron, which helped him accumulate a 3.9 GPA and receive the football team's Academic Scholar Award last year.

He also lends a hand to those in need, volunteering at a soup kitchen and helping out at an elderly art festival. "It felt good to give back," he says. Add in football practice and weightlifting, and it's a wonder Jenkins gets any sleep.

Family and friends are both very important to Jenkins as well. He credits much of his success to the tremendous support of his family, who instilled in him the importance of academics and community service. Meanwhile, his friends on the Falcons have been with him every step of the way, especially fellow seniors Caleb Porzel, Mike Wallace and Durrell Miller, a tight-knit quartet that refers to itself as "The Four Horsemen."

"He's just the most humble, down-to-earth kid," Milloy says. "He treats everyone the same. He's just a regular kid."

Albeit one who can chase down receivers like a superhero.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.