A lot of pressure comes with firsts. Just ask former USF cornerback Mike Jenkins.
Jenkins was the first player in USF history to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft. He went No. 25 overall to the Dallas Cowboys in April’s NFL draft, and said he was extremely emotional when he found out about the selection.
“I remember my family and friends were all going crazy,” Jenkins said. “It was so loud that I couldn’t even hear (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones on the phone. I had to call him back. It was an amazing feeling.”
The feeling quickly turned into a reality. Jenkins was on his way to being a Cowboy.
“Everybody that plays football wants to make it to the NFL,” he said. “It was a dream come true.”
When Jenkins entered the Cowboys’ training camp in July, he was projected to be the third or fourth cornerback on Dallas’ depth chart. Starter Terence Newman’s injury and uncertainty about Adam “Pacman” Jones’ fate pushed Jenkins into a more prominent role in the Cowboys’ four preseason games.
“I think Mike thought it was easy to walk in and be a star in this league, because he got a lot of playing time right away,” Cowboys secondary coach Dave Campo said. “I think he needed to learn a lot, but he did have a lot of raw talent.”
Jenkins was productive, finishing the preseason third on the team with 10 tackles.
Before the regular season started, however, Newman was cleared to play. Then Jones, who was serving a yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
That moved Jenkins back down the depth chart.
“With the injury to Newman and the Pacman situation, Mike was forced to do some things a rookie normally wouldn’t do,” Campo said. “He played well when we needed him to, but he also had a lot to learn.”
Campo said that Jenkins, who ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the NFL’s predraft scouting combine, needed to adjust to the speed of the NFL.
“The speed of the game is something all young players have to adjust to,” Campo said. “When you’re in college and you’re faster than everybody in your conference, you may think it will be easy at the next level, but he’s working hard to catch up to some of the veterans.”
Jenkins said he learned that lesson the hard way when practicing against wide receiver Terrell Owens.
“The man is so good that he shook me, and I thought I had to go find my shoes,” Jenkins said. “I learned that there’s a reason why he scores so much.”
USF defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said it means a lot to him that Jenkins is succeeding, but he agreed with Campo about Jenkins adjusting to life in the NFL.
“He realizes that everybody out there is trying to feed their families,” he said. “Those guys have been playing at such a high level for so long that Mike is in an adjustment period. Fortunately, he has the talent to make those adjustments.”
Recently, Jenkins had to make such adjustments on the fly.
In late October, Newman suffered a groin injury and Jones was suspended for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. Jenkins found himself back in the Cowboys’ starting lineup.
This time, however, the games weren’t exhibitions.
“When I found out, I was just really nervous,” Jenkins said. “Talk about butterflies. I was so nervous I wished I was back in the USF locker room.”
One of Jenkins’ good friends, USF senior safety Carlton Williams, said Jenkins called him as soon as he found out.
“You could tell he was nervous,” Williams said. “All he said was, ‘I just don’t want to get burned on national TV.”
Williams said Jenkins still provides leadership for the players on USF’s roster.
“He’ll call up, or visit when he can, and just talk to the guys,” Williams said. “He tells people that they shouldn’t strive to be Mike Jenkins — they should strive to be better. I think a lot of the guys appreciate that.”
Douglas said he doesn’t get to see Jenkins too often on television, but he did see his biggest NFL play to date.
During Dallas’ Nov. 3 game against the New York Giants, Jenkins intercepted his first career pass and returned the ball 23 yards for a touchdown.
He is the only Dallas player to return an interception for a touchdown this season.
“Man, I saw that and I think I was more excited about it than he was,” Williams said.
Jenkins said it was a neat feeling to share the secondary with the Cowboys’ other starting cornerback — former USF cornerback Anthony Henry.
“We joke all the time about how USF is taking over,” Jenkins said. “It’s cool to talk to him, because we went to the same school, shared the same field. He has also given me a lot of advice.”
Campo said as long as Jenkins can stay away from some of the common pitfalls of a pro football career, such as late nights and falling in with the wrong crowds, he has the potential to be a great player.
“Mike has great size and he’s learning quickly,” he said. “There’s a reason he was a No. 1 draft pick.”
Jenkins said learning that football is a business was one of his first lessons.
“It’s not everything it’s made out to be — it’s really a hard lifestyle,” he said. “You’ve always got to keep your body in shape and do everything you can, whether it’s hitting the gym or watching extra film, to stay ahead of everybody else. If you don’t, you’re going to be watching from the sidelines.”