TAMPA — In a span of four days in the past week, USF's football coaches saw the full spectrum of safety JaQuez Jenkins: first, the promising playmaking ability in the first scrimmage, then the frustration of seeing him limited by another injury.
Jenkins, a junior from Lakewood, had a leaping interception on his first play in that scrimmage, nearly picking off two more passes as he jumped quick routes like he did for a touchdown in last year's loss to West Virginia.
"I've really been impressed with Jenkins," coach Skip Holtz said that day. "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's opening a lot of people's eyes."
Then in the next practice on Monday, he managed to give himself a concussion in a noncontact drill, running square into defensive tackle Todd Chandler and knocking himself out. Jenkins hasn't practiced since, which reminds coaches of the hamstring problems that limited him to 13 tackles last season.
"Jenkins got a concussion in a noncontact, shorts drill. Really still trying to figure out how that one worked out," Holtz said Wednesday. "He didn't have his chinstrap buckled, didn't have his mouthpiece in, didn't have enough air in his helmet. … If it's something minor, he can be back in a couple of days; we can all learn a lesson from it. Those are the type of things we have to eliminate."
If that seems harsh, it was nothing compared to what veteran defensive backs coach Rick Smith said Monday in calling out key players for what he said was a lack of toughness.
"At safety, I have one guy I can depend on," Smith said, referring to junior Mark Joyce. "(JaQuez) Jenkins will have a good day, then he's hurt. Just like today, he goes down and we don't get anything out of him today. That's his history: Durability, there is none. Toughness, there is none. He's just a real good athlete that I can't depend on to be on the field."
Smith actually likes Jenkins, who, if healthy, should be the nickel defensive back, as well as the third safety. Best known at Lakewood as a quarterback, Jenkins had an interception returned just short of a touchdown as a freshman in USF's bowl win against Clemson. He had interceptions last year against Cincinnati and West Virginia, but both big plays came in games the Bulls lost in the final minute, a scenario he hopes USF can avoid in the 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."
The Bulls return a two-year starter in strong safety Jon Lejiste, but he has missed most of the spring with a wrist injury, putting Jenkins on the first team with another likely first-year starter in Joyce. A year ago, Jenkins was shifted from his natural position to provide depth at cornerback, but he's back at safety now, knowing he will at least be playing often in a three-player rotation there.
USF is replacing two multiyear starters in corner Quenton Washington and safety Jerrell Young, but the Bulls hope for improved play and better health in the secondary, with key players such as Jenkins stepping up in the 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."