GAINESVILLE — Janoris Jenkins can count on one hand the number of times he has been back to his hometown of Pahokee since he arrived in Gainesville in January, and the most recent trips to the town near Lake Okeechobee have been similar.
His meteoric ascension to starting cornerback with the No. 5 Gators as a true freshman has made him even more popular back home than he was as a two-way starter who played in four straight state championship games (three titles in his high school tenure).
"It's a little different," Jenkins said. "I'm getting a lot of publicity now. I figured it was going to happen, but not this soon. Some people will get the big head, but not me."
Which is why Jenkins stays in constant contact with his former high school coach, teammates and the people who helped mentor him along the way. Some text him before every game. It's why he's constantly reminded to take nothing for granted, and how quickly it can all come and go.
"They got me to where I am today," Jenkins said. "They helped me get here so that's (staying close) important to me."
Where he is today is exactly what most anticipated when Jenkins signed with the Gators. A former Parade All-American linebacker and running back, he enrolled at UF early as a four-star recruit, ranked the No. 4 cornerback prospect in the ESPN 150.
And six games into his first season, he hasn't disappointed. Jenkins started at cornerback in the season-opener against Hawaii, and has three other starts in the first six games — taking the starting job previously held by junior Wondy Pierre-Louis.
But it is Jenkins' work ethic and his humility that his coaches and teammates appreciate most about the Gators' latest rising star.
"He's a heck of a player," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "There are things that make Janoris what he is — he goes to class, he's a high character guy, he has a great family, he's appreciative of everything, he busts his tail and he's a playmaker. Was I concerned? Yes, because sometimes at that position it's not fair to put a freshman out there. We've seen guys get toasted at times, but what's helped Janoris is that Joe Haden and Major Wright are veterans. We've got some veteran players out there to help him, which wasn't the case last year when we had a lot of young guys. He's a really good player."
Unlike Haden and Wright, who were thrown into playing roles last season out of necessity, Jenkins enrolled early, participated in spring practice, studied with the older players all summer and has earned his right to play.
Against Tennessee, Jenkins forced a fumble on the Vols' first drive that led to a Florida field goal and also had an interception in the end zone that prevented Tennessee from scoring as the first half closed.
He had a career-high nine tackles against LSU, including his first career sack (for a loss of 12 yards).
"We knew early on that Janoris was going to be a really good player for us," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "He's got speed, he's talented. What we didn't know was how well he was going to be able to learn to play at this level, so quickly. And having Joe and Major and some other guys to learn from has just accelerated that learning process. He's playing very well for us right now."
Jenkins, 19, says he enjoys the challenge of being a newcomer playing at this level.
"I like that," he said. "It makes me compete even harder knowing I'm a freshman and guys may challenge me. That just makes me work harder."
Redshirt freshman receiver Deonte Thompson competed against Jenkins in high school, and now faces him on the practice field daily. He said what makes Jenkins so special is "he's more aggressive than the other corners, he's got a lot more aggressiveness."
"I think it's good, I'm happy for him," Thompson said. "He's the same old guy, same guy. He comes out every day working hard, nothing changes."
Jenkins understands there's a fine line between being confident and being cocky. He's making a concerted effort to walk that path with care.
"You've got to have confidence at any position," he said. "If you don't have confidence, you can't make plays. And I came here to make big plays."
So far, so good.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Check out her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.