TAMPA — The last time the Bucs drafted a cornerback in the first round, USF's Mike Jenkins probably hadn't even gripped his first football.
Southern Methodist's Rod Jones was the second of Tampa Bay's two first-round picks (25th overall) in 1986. As it turned out, the man who earned the nickname "Toast" was almost as dubious a choice as the other first-round pick that year: running back and first overall pick Bo Jackson, who rejected the Bucs to play baseball.
Perhaps, then, it's about time the Bucs invested substantially in a position that has become thin this offseason and will grow thinner as 33-year-old Ronde Barber's career hits its latter stages.
But if the Bucs do so, why should they opt for Jenkins, who was barely a year old on draft day in 1986, if he is on the board when they make the No. 20 pick?
USF coach Jim Leavitt can offer a pretty persuasive argument.
"The guy is so powerful, he's like a locomotive," Leavitt said. "He's speed, and he's power; almost like Superman. I don't even talk like this. I don't even use these words. I better stop because I don't want to embarrass the guy. But I don't think the world has seen what Mike Jenkins can do."
How's that for an endorsement?
Of course, words alone won't make Jenkins a first-round pick. NFL clubs want to see for themselves, which would explain why Patriots coach Bill Belichick showed up on campus last month to put Jenkins, 23, through a series of drills.
It was an indication the Patriots, who pick seventh, are seriously considering the prospect. The Saints, who select 10th, also have shown interest, conducting an on-campus workout Tuesday with Jenkins, who had three interceptions last season and six for his career.
But with the draft starting Saturday, there is no consensus on what order the premier cornerbacks will go. That could bode well for the Bucs. Should the other three top cornerbacks be taken first, Jenkins would fall to Tampa Bay.
And that would suit defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin just fine. Kiffin likes Jenkins' ability to thrive in both man-to-man and zone coverage. USF's scheme, Leavitt pointed out, mirrors the Bucs' Cover 2 defense in many ways, which would enable Jenkins to transition smoothly to a pro team that runs that system.
"He's a special guy," Kiffin said after watching the Bradenton native during the Bulls' pro day. "He's got great man skills. (USF) plays a lot of zone just like we do. But they played more man last year because of the corners. That's a credit to the players."
"I like the mentality that the USF kids have," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
"They've been well-coached, and the kid has talent."
The Bucs have a different approach to drafting cornerbacks than some clubs.
Because their system rarely leaves cornerbacks isolated in traditional man-to-man coverage, the Bucs don't have a history of drafting coveted shutdown cornerbacks with blinding speed. They prefer physical cornerbacks who can tackle and provide run support.
Thing is, while Jenkins doesn't mind engaging in the occasional footrace with a receiver, his tackling ability and willingness to mix it up means he'd be adept at the Bucs' style, too.
Soon, Jenkins hopes to leave his mark on the NFL, maybe in Tampa. For the Bulls, Jenkins already has left his thumbprint on the program and could become the school's first first-round pick.
"What it means is that high school recruits can come to the University of South Florida and achieve any goal they want," Leavitt said.
"If you want to be a first-round pick, you've got it. If you want to win a Super Bowl ring, you've got that. If you want to play for a national championship, we're in the hunt. We're breaking down barriers, and that's very powerful."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]