Jenkins rising up as USF defense seeks more
TAMPA -- For the second year in a row, USF's defense will enter the season with three starter-quality safeties vying for playing time, and St. Petersburg's JaQuez Jenkins is making a strong case this spring for a larger role in the fall.
"I've really been impressed with Jenkins," coach Skip Holtz said after Friday's first spring scrimmage. "He gives us that free safety we haven't had here, tall, lanky, athletic, can cover a lot of ground at the safety position. (He) had a great interception early in the scrimmage, coming across, made a great, athletic play in the middle. We've played a lot of three-deep, but we have not had a free safety in the middle of the field like JaQuez Jenkins. He's opening a lot of people's eyes."
Jenkins, who was best known at Lakewood as a quarterback, made a splash as a redshirt sophomore last fall despite being limited by a hamstring injury. He had four tackles and an interception in his first career start against Cincinnati, then added an interception he returned for a touchdown in USF's final game against West Virginia. Both big plays came in games the Bulls lost in the final minute, a scenario he hopes USF can avoid this fall with a stronger defense.
"Coming into the spring, we wanted to set the tone from Day 1," the 6-foot-2, 189-pound junior said of the mind set this spring. "I felt like a lot of the games we may have lost in the fourth quarter were put on the defense. We didn't want any of those losses to happen again, and definitely didn't want it to be on the defensive side of the ball."
Jenkins, who totaled 13 tackles last season, intercepted a Bobby Eveld pass across the middle on the No. 1 defense's first play in Friday's scrimmage, then just missed a pair of easy touchdowns, jumping quick routes to get a hand on the ball as he did for his touchdown against the Mountaineers.
"That's the reason I think I dropped it," Jenkins said of the missed opportunity. "I was thinking about West Virginia all over again. ... It's just reading the quarterback's eyes."
The Bulls return a two-year starter in strong safety Jon Lejiste, but he's missed most of spring with a wrist injury, putting Jenkins on the first team with another likely first-year starter in junior Mark Joyce. A year ago, Jenkins was shifted away from his natural position to provide depth at cornerback, but he's back at safety now, knowing he'll at least be playing often in a three-player rotation there. He's also a good fit for USF's nickel defense, where a fifth defensive back replaces a linebacker in likely passing downs.
"(He's) playing with a lot of confidence, playing with an attitude right now, really doing some good things," Holtz said.
USF will be replacing two multi-year starters in corner Quenton Washington and safety Jerrell Young, but the Bulls hope for improved play in the secondary, with key players like Jenkins stepping up this fall.
"We're trying to make a statement as a defense as a whole," Jenkins said. "We're all fighting for positions, but we're fighting to be the No. 1 defense in the nation. We came out with that mind set that we want to be nothing short of great."