Commentary

Janoris Jenkins walking tightrope

As draft approaches, oft-troubled CB prospect can't afford to stumble

Originally Published: March 29, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

The barrel-bodied coach with the syrupy drawl wasn't mincing words with Janoris Jenkins last spring. Terry Bowden had already spent the previous two years at North Alabama, a Division II school located in Florence, so he understood some players might not embrace a small program with limited resources.

As Bowden scanned Jenkins' body language that day in his office, the coach also sensed Jenkins trying to find his own comfort level. The kid had no choice. This was his last hope of resurrecting the reputation he had nearly firebombed while at the University of Florida.

Because Bowden had made his name while coaching Auburn from 1993 to '98, he knew Jenkins would have an immediate impact at a lower level. The bigger issue was whether Jenkins could deal with his new surroundings after being dismissed from Florida following three seasons as a star cornerback.

"I told him that we'd be playing in front of 500 people some days," Bowden said. "We'd be taking buses to games and not jets. And I also didn't want to see him wearing any orange and blue. He wasn't a Gator anymore. He was a North Alabama Lion."

Jenkins probably didn't need to hear the hard truth about where he was heading. With one year of eligibility remaining in college, he wasn't concerned about location or limelight. He cared only about regaining the stature he holds today, as one of the most highly regarded cornerbacks in this year's NFL draft. The real challenge, as far as Jenkins could see, was finding a way to restore his good name.

When Jenkins arrived at North Alabama, he carried the taint of three arrests at Florida, the last two for marijuana possession, and a failed drug test. Today, he's a 23-year-old man trying to make people see that he's learned plenty from those mistakes.

"So far the process has been good," Jenkins said recently when asked about his pre-draft preparation. "I try to do everything I can [to help my stock] on the field, and I also try to answer people's questions about me off the field. All I can do is let people know that things have changed."

"He's definitely a player," one AFC general manager said. "He can run, and you could start him at the nickel [cornerback] from day one. The thing that somebody will have to decide is whether he's accountable. You don't know if what he's been through will rear its head again."

Janoris JenkinsKim Klement/US PresswireJenkins accomplished a lot during his time at Florida. He also made his share of poor decisions.

Carrying baggage

At 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, Jenkins has the quickness, savvy and playmaking ability that NFL teams covet in their cornerbacks. He's also battle-tested. At the height of his career, he stifled future first-round picks such as Cincinnati's A.J. Green (formerly of Georgia) and Atlanta's Julio Jones (Alabama). Throw in the teammates Jenkins routinely faced in Florida practices (including current Vikings receiver Percy Harvin and Oakland's Louis Murphy), and you get the idea. The guy doesn't lack for mental toughness.

The past 12 months have given Jenkins something else that will be an asset: humility. He gained that by discussing his mistakes at places such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and various schools near North Alabama. He earned it by bringing the relentless energy of a walk-on to his multiple special-teams duties. Even when teams weren't throwing at him, Jenkins didn't brood over his lack of opportunities. He figured his days at Florida would provide ample evidence of his skills to pro scouts.

Jenkins sounds convincing when saying he never worried about moving down to Division II -- "My talent never went anywhere," he said -- but he does understand the work that still lies ahead. He's already had time to display his maturity in front of coaches at the Senior Bowl and in brief interviews at the combine in February. There will be longer question-and-answer sessions with teams as the draft nears along with his pro day in a few weeks. As confident as Jenkins is, there is no room for error at this point.

There already have been whispers about how Jenkins' four children will affect his concentration and bank account at the next level.

"Janoris isn't a risk of being a problem off the field in the NFL," Bowden said. "He's a tough kid and a hard worker. People talk about him having four kids, and I didn't even know that because he never talked about it. Usually, guys that have issues with that are late for practice or always dealing with stuff. I always felt like Janoris was handling his business."

Jenkins also has found comfort in the maturity he's gained over the past year. This past fall, his father, William, sent him a DVD of the movie "Secretariat" in hopes of teaching him another valuable lesson.

"I wanted him to know he was just like that horse," William said. "There are times when you're going to lose but you also can't give up. Janoris has kept fighting."

Too much, too soon?

That Jenkins wound up in such trouble is still something that surprises the people in his hometown of Pahokee, Fla. When his mentor, Sandy "Sarge-C" Cornelio, first met him six years ago, Jenkins was a junior at Pahokee High School. Cornelio was an Army sergeant recruiting students, and he encouraged Jenkins to consider serving his country as well. "Nah," Jenkins said at the time. "I'm going to college to play football."

A strong relationship soon developed between Cornelio and Jenkins. Whenever Cornelio came through Pahokee, Jenkins would ask about the military or what was happening with the search for Osama bin Laden. Cornelio liked the kid's curiosity, energy and desire to get ahead.

"Janoris had a lot of joy in him," Cornelio said. "He didn't see himself as a star. He was very down to earth."

[+] EnlargeJanoris Jenkins
AP Photo/Ben Liebenberg Jenkins had a productive 2011 season at North Alabama. The question is whether he did enough to repair his image.

Jenkins made a similar impression on the Gators when he arrived in 2007. He'd never played cornerback in high school -- he excelled at multiple positions, including running back -- and yet he quickly earned the respect of older defensive backs such as Joe Haden and Major Wright. Jenkins had a palpable fearlessness to his game even then, and, as William remembered, "Janoris would always tell you he could do anything except fail."

Added former Gators co-defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, now at Temple: "Janoris had the instincts, the anticipation and the confidence. He had the 'it' factor."

Looking back on those times, Cornelio suspects things were going "too perfectly" for Jenkins once he became a freshman starter on Florida's 2008 national championship team. Heater also remembers feeling concerned about old friends making trips from Pahokee to see Jenkins. By June 2009, there were legitimate issues. They started when Jenkins ran into two men while helping a teammate search for a lost national title ring at a Gainesville nightclub.

The drama increased to the point that Jenkins said one of the men tried to snatch a chain off his neck. Once Jenkins left the club and ran into the man again, Jenkins punched him and immediately felt the sharp sting of a police officer's stun gun in his back.

"I felt the Taser, and my first instinct was to run," Jenkins said. "It wasn't like I walked up and hit the guy in front of a cop."

Jenkins earned his first strike against his reputation with that incident -- he was charged with fighting and resisting arrest, for which he received a deferred prosecution agreement and was placed on six months' probation -- but his on-field play was still what had people talking at that point. Even after sustaining a torn labrum in the first game of his junior season, Jenkins played every game. He impressed so much that he earned All-SEC honors and plenty of buzz as a potential first-round pick. If not for that shoulder injury -- along with a desire to finish a college degree -- Jenkins would have bolted from Florida after that season.

Forward thinking

There has never been a day, as far as Jenkins concedes, when he has wondered what would have happened if he had left for the NFL. All he knows is what did happen. Florida head coach Urban Meyer retired, a move that Jenkins said left him "depressed." When new coach Will Muschamp arrived, Jenkins was still recovering from offseason surgery, and the two rarely saw each other. That combination of variables -- downtime and distractions -- ultimately led to Jenkins making the worst possible impression on a coach who hardly knew him.

In January 2011, a Gainesville police officer walked into the bathroom of a local nightclub and found Jenkins holding a small bag of marijuana. That would be Jenkins' first arrest on a misdemeanor charge for possession of the drug. Jenkins accepted a plea agreement with the state attorney's office on that charge and was ordered to pay court costs of $316.

The second came three months later, shortly after Jenkins left a car with a teammate and two friends from Pahokee. When a nearby policeman smelled marijuana and asked to check the car, it didn't matter that Jenkins didn't drive or own the vehicle. When the officer found a small bag of marijuana, Jenkins wound up in handcuffs again. He was forced to pay $421 in court costs and fines for the misdemeanor charge of possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.

Janoris JenkinsJoe Robbins/Getty Images Despite his checkered past, Jenkins is trying to remain optimistic about what the future might hold.

Three days later, Jenkins met with Muschamp while Cornelio and William listened to the coach's reasoning for dismissing his star cornerback. The coach told Jenkins he had two options: enter the NFL supplemental draft or transfer. Since NCAA rules forbid Jenkins from transferring to another Division I Football Bowl Subdivision program at that point, he had to consider a lower level of competition. (Muschamp wasn't available for comment but released a statement saying, "Janoris is a very talented football player who has a lot of God-given ability. I wish nothing but the best for Janoris and I hope he has a long, prosperous NFL career and a productive life after football.")

During the four-hour ride back to Pahokee, Cornelio clarified things even more while William glared at his son.

"I told him he had three choices," Cornelio said. "When he finished college, he was either going to the NFL, the Army or back to Pahokee to work with his father [driving a truck]. He had to decide. And to his credit, he needed about 30 seconds to make the right choice."

"They basically told me that I had made my mistakes," Jenkins said. "And now I had to figure out how to deal with them."

William and Cornelio agreed that allowing Jenkins to enter the supplemental draft would be counterproductive. Along with losing money, Jenkins wouldn't have paid a steep enough price for his mistakes. He ultimately liked North Alabama because of Bowden's reputation and a shot at a national title. Before accepting Jenkins, Bowden did his homework by talking extensively with Muschamp, Heater, Meyer and even Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. Jenkins did his part by going all-in with North Alabama.

Jenkins returned three punts for touchdowns this past season while blocking a field goal and a punt and covering kickoffs. He also inspired his teammates.

"I was just happy to get the opportunity to play with those guys," said Jenkins, who finished the season as a second-team Division II All-American. "I saw what they had to go through in order to get their opportunities. I tried to let them know that they could've been D-1 players, too, even though they didn't get the chance."

"Going from Florida to North Alabama for Janoris was like going from driving a Lexus to driving a Hyundai," William said. "But it was a positive for him. We'd been on him for three years, and I think he started to relax. He needed to realize this could all be over in a flash."

Now Jenkins has to convince others that he's as contrite and committed to success as Bowden believed. Said Heater: "He's not a bad kid. I think Janoris just made some bad decisions. He had a lot of friends from Pahokee that would come see him [in Gainesville], and I don't think they were the best influences."

Bowden added that he doesn't see Jenkins as having a drug problem, saying, "I can see how this happened. His coaches had left. He couldn't practice because of that injury. And Pahokee isn't that far from Gainesville. If he had been getting up at 5 a.m. to lift weights, I guarantee he wouldn't have been doing that stuff."

Ultimately, the support of Jenkins' former coaches goes only so far. The true test is what the NFL decision-makers believe.

"The toughest thing is what are the issues," said former Baltimore Ravens coach and current Fox analyst Brian Billick when asked about drafting players with character questions. "Young people tend to do stupid things. Do you have a sense he understands he has to change his behavior? … Going forward, is this an ingrained part of his character, or did he just do some stupid thing? If it's the latter, you can be optimistic about the NFL and what's at stake for him will help sort that out. If it's an innate part of the character, that's where you don't want to make that mistake."

As Jenkins recently prepared to take his oldest son out for a day of fun, he tried to remain optimistic about the possibility of people eventually seeing his upside.

"I know I made those mistakes," Jenkins said. "But I also know I don't do those things anymore and I don't hang around with those guys. I've learned that you have to face reality. And the biggest thing isn't just how you face it. It's what you do after that point."