John Jenkins says the experience has been “like a fairy tale.”
John Jenkins, who played much of his sophomore season at about 340 pounds, thrilled UGA fans when he signed with the Bulldogs three days after National Signing Day.
How else might one describe the journey of a plus-sized youngster from central Connecticut who ventured all the way to a junior college in rural, coastal Mississippi in order to attain stardom less than two years later?
There are few teams in big-time college football that would turn down a 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive tackle who moved well enough to play running back and star on the basketball court in high school.
Georgia, in particular, was in need of this type of nose guard, which may be why the UGA student section at a basketball game chanted Jenkins’ name during his official visit in January.
He signed with the Bulldogs three days after Signing Day at a ceremony at his high school in Meriden, Conn.
“People up north like myself couldn't even imagine going there,” Jenkins said of UGA. “They don't even follow the school because we don't have the opportunity to go to those type of schools.”
The First Step
Back in high school, Jenkins was a fullback in the Wing T offense. If you can believe it, he was a bruising kind of runner who also served as the tight end or wing-back in situations where that player was the one expected to catch a pass.
“I was pretty much a playmaker, I guess,” Jenkins said.
It was basketball, however, that was his passion growing up.
UGA defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said the day John Jenkins signed that he expects an 'immediate impact' from the big nose guard.
“John thought of himself as a basketball player for a lot of years,” said Steve Campbell, Jenkins' coach at Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College, “and kind of focused on basketball. I think really his senior year is when he really hit the stage in high school as a football player.”
Though he’d heard from coaching staffs at places like Rutgers, Jenkins didn’t have much attention as a recruit out of high school. With academics as a reason, he considered junior colleges in Kansas but wound up in Perkinston, Miss., after his high school coach contacted Campbell.
Jenkins stepped into a defensive line previously anchored by Terrence Cody, a 400-pound Gulf Coast product who became an All-American, Lombardi Award finalist and national champion during two seasons at Alabama.
The comparisons were obvious.
“Every time I turned around, it was 'Terrence Cody, Terrence Cody,’” Jenkins said. “I've been living in that man's shadow since day one. … It's something to live up to, because Terrence Cody had a successful career and continued on (to the NFL). Every athlete probably has a similarity to another athlete, but they are not that athlete. I'm just trying to establish my own identity.”
Asked to compare his two star nose guards, Campbell said he expects Jenkins to “be the same kind of impact player” at Georgia that Cody was at Alabama.
From the start, Jenkins proved to be a step quicker than Cody, and since he wasn’t as heavy, he wasn’t as much of a project. Colleges became interested quickly in Jenkins and the buzz only grew after he originally committed to Oklahoma State, prompting him to withdraw that commitment and consider a number of other schools, Georgia among them.
During two seasons of junior college, Jenkins’ lessons on the football field in Mississippi seemed to be as much mental as they were fundamental.
At nearly 350 pounds himself, Kwame Geathers may team up with Jenkins in what could be one of the largest defensive lines in college football.
“They instilled a personality in me that I never thought I had, to be honest,” he said. “They got me to develop the 'On-and-off' switch on the field. I'm a nice guy and treats everyone with respect or whatever, and that was a thing I had my first year here. I would beat everyone in board drills or one-on-ones, veterans or the freshmen. But I couldn't find myself ready to hurt them or anything like that, and they told me, 'I can't do that' when it comes to playing the game.
“When comes to the game, I have to be a dog. I have to destroy people.”
The Next Step
Jenkins is in line to finish classes at his junior college on May 5. The current plan, if things fall into place, would be for him to arrive the next day at UGA and be able to start classes during May, about a month before the majority of the Bulldogs’ 2011 signees.
“That's the plan we've all agreed upon,” Jenkins said, “and that’s what I would want to do.”
Nonetheless, there's still some paperwork to be finalized at UGA toward enrolling in May, Jenkins said. So it remains possible that he would just wait until early June to enroll with the majority of the Bulldogs' signing class.
Unlike those other freshmen signees, Jenkins will be a junior when he gets to Athens, carrying three years to spend two years of eligibility.
He also carries with him expectations befitting of not only an older player but a seasoned veteran. If Jenkins steps on campus and immediately earns a starting role as Georgia’s nose guard this fall, he will only be doing what is roundly expected of him.
That comes from himself, fans and a coaching staff that clearly recruited Jenkins as an immediate plug-in at a position of need in the second season of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense.
“I felt he was the best fit of the guys that were available,” said Grantham, who uttered the phrase "immediate impact" hours after Jenkins signed.
“When you go somewhere where there's a lot of hype following behind you, it's like all eyes are on you from day one, no matter what you do,” Jenkins said. “I really do feel like I have to impress the coaches. I impressed them enough for them to recruit and want me to play for them. Now I've got to take it above and beyond. That's my goal, to not be satisfied with myself. I really don't want to let anybody down. I feel like I have to take beyond their measurements. Wherever they set the bar, I want to take it beyond that.”
Most would have thought Jenkins was basically assured of a starting role upon signing with Georgia. But redshirt sophomore Kwame Geathers added some intrigue -- along with about 25 pounds -- this spring.
After barely cracking the rotation in 2010, Geathers was nearly 350 pounds and lights-out this spring at nose guard. His efforts left Grantham saying of he and Jenkins, “There’s nothing etched in stone those two guys have got to be at nose.”
So Geathers will likely get a look at defensive end this preseason in an effort to try to get Jenkins and Geathers on the field together. In response, Jenkins said, “I don't know what they're going to do, and I don't care. I’m telling you, I just want to win.”
UGA defensive line coach Rodney Garner has remained in close contact with Jenkins since Signing Day and is the one trying to arrange early enrollment in May.
Other details are falling into place. Jenkins’ jersey choice at UGA will be No. 6, he said. Actually, he first asked for it to be No. 5, but fellow signee Damian Swann had that number, so Jenkins went with No. 6, a strange choice for a defensive lineman but something he still wants to do, he says with a laugh.
Jenkins says he isn't aware of a specific weight the Bulldogs staff wants him on report day.
“I just know when I spoke to Coach (Mark) Richt about it,” Jenkins said, “Coach Richt was telling me, 'I just want you to be able to play and play for a long time and be able to destroy for a long time.”
Garner said prior to the G-Day game at Jenkins was at 361 pounds. For what it’s worth, Jenkins says he’s now “about 350 pounds,” though he admitted that some of the workouts of late have taken a backseat to academic obligations prior to junior college graduation.
“I've been really focusing on my classwork,” Jenkins said, “trying to make sure I don't come across anything when it's time for me to go.”
On the field, he’s looking forward to the rising level of competition and an opportunity to test himself in the SEC.
Jenkins is confident he can handle it.
“I know there's going to be a lot of people saying, “‘Junior college to SEC is going to be a totally different change,’” Jenkins said. “But to me, if you want it as bad as you say you want it, then you're going to make it happen. I'm going to be ready to play, regardless. I don't care. Anybody can pre-determine anything before Boise State, but I know exactly what's going to happen. I'm going to be ready to play.
“Whether I'm starting or not starting, I’m going to be ready to play.”
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