Jelani Jenkins was recruited to play the weak side (WILL) linebacker position for Florida when he came out of high school as a five-star prospect that starred in the Under Armour All-American game.
Through his redshirt freshman year and the first six practices of spring, that is just where he lined up and practiced pretty well.
Two weeks ago, the staff was having a hard time settling on a middle linebacker (MIKE) and the position was being rotated between three other players. In the meantime, Jelani Jenkins was flying around the ball as well as anyone when he got his chance to get on the field. A decision was made to move him to the MIKE and the rest may go down in history.
For Jenkins, it is all the same and he is just trying to help this Gator defensive unit as good as it can be.
“We’re all just playing to get a linebacker spot,” Jenkins told the media Wednesday. “We’ve all just rotated. I don’t know how they’re going to do the position-wise thing. I’ve played WILL sometimes. I’ve played MIKE sometimes. We’re all playing different positions. I think they’re trying to put the three best linebacker on the field however that plays out.”
As we have been telling you here, the WILL and MIKE backers are pretty much the same position in this defense. According to Jenkins there are very few differences in the two.
“Really, they’re pretty much the same thing,” Jenkins said. “It really wasn’t much of a difference. They’re different assignments. They’re different plays. That’s the only thing that’s different about it. In certain offenses, the MIKE (position) is more free than the will. In certain offenses the WILL is more free than the MIKE. It’s really not that big of a difference.”
Jenkins wants to make sure there is a little to no drop off from the high caliber of linebacker play that fans and coaches have come to see in the Gators' defense.
“All season I’ve just tried to get better, get bigger, get faster,” Jenkins said. “With the guys that we have leaving, it was time for a lot of us to step up, not just me. Lot’s of people, Bostic. Everyone’s stepping up. We’re trying to make sure there’s no falloff. We’ve had such great linebackers before. That’s what is motivating me, to keep pushing and pushing. I’ve gotten better since then.”
The Gator linebackers of recent years have all had to know how to rush the passer. They have done it well and that is something that Jenkins has not let fall by the way side. They all understand they have some big shoes to fill up front in Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, and Carlos Dunlap who will all be playing in the NFL next season.
“I think I can rush the passer pretty good...use my speed,” he said. “I’ve had to learn a lot about that also. There’s a lot to rushing the passer. You can’t just run down the middle of the field. ...I'm starting to get better at that.”
“We’ve lost a lot of pass rushing guys, Spikes, Dunlap, Cunningham. The linebackers now have to fill that void. I think they’re going to be counting on us to rush the passer and getting that job done.”
However, he knows there are still areas that he must improve his game.
“I think there are a lot of areas,” Jenkins said. “I can definitely get better in my fundamentals still. I’m still not where I want to be in terms of playing. I’m still basing it off my athleticism. I think I need to learn how to play the linebacker position a little better.”
For Jenkins, the athletic part comes easy, it is the mental part of knowing gap assignments in the running game and other technical parts of playing the position that he has to get better at.
“It’s easier to get in coverage,” he said. “That’s pretty self explanatory. When you play the run, there’s a lot of things that happen fast, a lot of movement. I think it’s easier to play in the open field.”
Oddly enough one guy he learns a lot of fundamentals for the position from is the guy that was projected to start at the MIKE this season. Jon Bostic is a sophomore from Palm Beach and was recruited at the same time as Jenkins to come to Florida.
“Bostic’s a great player,” Jenkins said. “We all learn from his fundamentals. He has great fundamentals. We look at him on film and learn from him. He’s great to play with and side by side with. (He and I) are friends off the field and have a good connection, so it’s really fun.”
With Jenkins, Brandon Hicks, and A.J. Jones set to start right now as the three linebackers, Florida may be fielding the fastest linebacker group in America. This will certainly be a group that can run anyone down. As a matter of fact, Bostic can run as well as senior linebacker Lorenzo Edwards. Surprisingly, none of them are as fast as a true freshman that showed up this spring for his first semester in college.
“We have a really fast group,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got Neiron Ball, a freshman, and he’s faster than all of us. We have Hicks. We’re all fast, athletic linebackers. I think that’s going to help us out some. We’re not as big as Spikes, but we have athleticism and we hit.”
And Gator fans are going to love to see all of the hitting.