INDIANAPOLIS: During his three seasons at Division II North Alabama, new University of Akron coach Terry Bowden worked his contacts in the upper echelon of college football to bring in several transfers every year.
But when cornerback Janoris Jenkins was kicked off the team at the University of Florida, Bowden wasn’t exactly waiting with open arms.
One of the most talented but polarizing prospects in the April 26-28 NFL Draft, Jenkins had been arrested three times. He was Tasered during a June 2009 street fight outside a bar, then caught smoking marijuana twice in a period of three months in 2011. New Florida coach Will Muschamp made an example of Jenkins and booted him even though he had been the second Gator to start at cornerback as a freshman, following the Browns’ Joe Haden.
Bowden said he didn’t find out until last week that Jenkins also has four children ranging in age from 3 years to 3 months, reportedly by three different women. But Bowden knew enough to realize Jenkins was an NFL first-round talent with very few options.
Jenkins could declare for the supplemental draft, where the best he would probably get was third-round pay. Or he could find a coach at a lower-level school who would take him in and help him back on the path to a promising pro career. Because he was leaving with one year of eligibility remaining, Bowden said Jenkins couldn’t go to a Division I-AA school, his choice had to be in Division II.
“He was in a bind,” Bowden said of Jenkins in a telephone interview Wednesday. “He really had three strikes at Florida. You have to understand how many guys I don’t take who get in similar types of trouble.”
Before he allowed Jenkins to join his team, Bowden said he called former Florida coach Urban Meyer, former Gators defensive backs coach Chuck Heater, who had moved on to Temple, and Florida director of athletics Jeremy Foley.
“I tried to figure out as much of his background as possible to find out if he was just a kid who made mistakes or if he was not a good risk,” Bowden said. “They assured me he was worth the risk because of the mistakes he’d made and the circumstances they’d come under.”
Jenkins’ father also drove his son from Pahokee, Fla., to Florence, Ala., to meet with Bowden. Jenkins hoped to convince Bowden he could stay clean and was serious about his commitment to football.
Both had something to offer each other. Bowden would be adding one of the best cornerbacks in the country to his team. If he passed monthly drug tests and had a good season, Jenkins would get a recommendation from Bowden, whose family has high credibility with NFL scouts.
Bowden’s most recent example was Preston Parker, who transferred to North Alabama after Bowden’s father Bobby dismissed him from Florida State in February 2009. Parker had been arrested three times at FSU, once for driving under the influence and another on drug and weapons charges. Parker signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in April 2010 and last season caught 40 passes, second among Bucs’ receivers.
“I appreciate him for accepting me into the program,” Jenkins said of Terry Bowden a week ago at the NFL Scouting Combine. “He gave me a second opportunity to come in and redeem myself from the mistakes that I made. I respect him as a man and as a coach.”
Once Bowden heard the circumstances of Jenkins’ transgressions, Bowden thought Jenkins deserved that second chance.
Jenkins’ Pahokee High School team went to four consecutive state 2B championship games, winning three. Bowden said Jenkins realized he could be a first-round draft pick as a freshman at Florida, when he earned a starting job in the opener and helped the Gators reach the BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma. Jenkins planned to stay at Florida for three years.
The only blip on his early resume was the arrest in a 2 a.m. fight outside a bar, when Jenkins was trying to keep a gold chain he was wearing from being stolen, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Bowden said Jenkins’ problems began in his junior season, when he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the Outback Bowl against Penn State.
Bowden said Jenkins couldn’t work out at the combine or at the Gators’ pro day, so he decided to return for his senior season. But Meyer resigned Dec. 8, and three days later Muschamp was hired. Heater departed. Jenkins let the mid-January deadline to declare for the draft come and go.
“Janoris had shoulder surgery so he can’t do winter drills, he can’t lift weights, he can’t work out with anybody,” Bowden said. “He doesn’t know any of the new coaches. So he’s kind of hanging out at his apartment by himself.
“Within one month he gets caught smoking marijuana. He didn’t fail a test, he actually got caught, once in a bathroom in a club and the other time in a car with three other guys. A bunch of guys from his hometown were coming up to visit him. He was hanging around with the wrong people.”
A week ago at the combine, Jenkins was asked if he would still be at Florida if not for the coaching change.
“No comment, man. I don’t know,” Jenkins said.
Playing at North Alabama was a rude awakening for Jenkins. Many of the games were on Thursdays. There were no perks, like the endless supply of gear from Nike. Bowden once staged a fundraiser to pay for his team’s new shower shoes.
“North Alabama is a Division II public school. You don’t have all that luxury stuff,” Bowden said. “It wasn’t big time anything. He wasn’t used to having nothing.
“He’s out there in rags. He has to be part of a team. He has to get his teammates to accept him. He’s got to not want preferential treatment. He’s got to give up a lot of the things he had.”
Jenkins said the bare-bones program “made me appreciate a lot.”
“Coming from Florida, getting three or four pairs of cleats a week, gloves, going to North Alabama and getting one pair of cleats,” Jenkins said in Indianapolis. “Playing in front of 3,500 people … being in the Swamp and playing in front of 95,000 is a big difference. Learning experience.”
Humbling, too. Because North Alabama’s opponents didn’t throw Jenkins’ way, he had to take on roles that might have seemed beneath him to stay involved.
“Not only did he play great defensive back,” Bowden said, “he returned punts, he blocked punts, he blocked PATs, he covered punts.
“He proved how unselfish he was. Not just returning punts because that’s kind of fun. He was the first guy who covered every punt and kickoff. That’s the blue-collar stuff. That’s where he showed his willingness to do whatever it took for our team.”
Thursday games gave Jenkins more time to watch the Gators on Saturday and reflect on what he had thrown away. Bowden said Jenkins stayed out of trouble and never failed a drug test.
“Now he got himself back in the hunt,” Bowden said of the NFL Draft.
Putting it behind him
Some teams will red-flag Jenkins, labeling him undraftable. Some might be concerned about Jenkins’ admission that he has three boys and a girl, ages 3, 2, 1 and 3 months. At the combine he didn’t hesitate to name them — Janoris Jr., Legend, Janorion and Paris.
“He has a girlfriend; I’ve had to call him at her house plenty of times,” Bowden said. “He never told me any of that stuff.”
Jenkins said his mother and children are his motivation to conquer his marijuana problem.
“I’m done with it forever, man. I can’t do it,” he said.
“[I have to] eliminate myself from some of those guys I used to hang with.
“I think about my mom all the time and my kids. In order for me to be successful and for them to have a great life or a nice life I’ve got to put it behind me. In order for my kids to get what they want … I can be a father to my kids and just be there with my mom.”
Some teams will look at Jenkins’ junior year at Florida and be tempted. Jenkins defended Georgia’s A.J. Green, Alabama’s Julio Jones and South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery and held them to a per-game average of 4.7 catches for 38 yards, giving up just one touchdown. In their other regular-season games in 2010, the three averaged 97.2 yards on 6.2 receptions and totaled 25 touchdowns. Green is now with the Cincinnati Bengals, Jones with the Atlanta Falcons, and Jeffery is projected as a first- or second-round pick by Pro Football Weekly.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock believes that three cornerbacks will be selected in the first round and that one of them could be Jenkins.
“Some teams will look him in the eye and convince themselves the kid is really going to change a little bit,” Mayock said. “Other teams are going to say he’s never going to change his spots. The more talented kids get more chances and Jenkins is a pretty talented kid. Somebody is going to buy into that.”
Bowden did just that. He sat in his office, looked Jenkins in the eye and decided to take a chance.
“It was a long, hard year and I’m proud of him,” Bowden said. “He did what he had to do to make up for the mistakes he made.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.