Published November 30, 2012
ST. LOUIS – Janoris Jenkins is no stranger to tough love. No stranger to rising from it, either.
A one-game benching earlier this season was nothing for the St. Louis Rams' budding star cornerback compared to getting booted from the powerful SEC to the obscurity of Division II in college.
Last week, instead of the guy who dropped to the second round of the draft due to off-field problems, Jenkins stepped up as a player to be reckoned with, just the fourth rookie since 1950 to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a game.
There's plenty to learn, given a recent three-game stretch in which he surrendered four touchdown passes after biting on the first move. Too much guesswork has resulted in a mix of big plays and bad burns, not to mention the punch to the gut from his own team that left him standing disconsolately on the sideline in a 24-24 tie against the 49ers, along with fellow rookie Chris Givens, for violating team rules.
Then again, he's just a 24-year-old kid perhaps in need of a wakeup call.
"All of our rookies go through growing pains," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that he's had two strong games after missing time in San Francisco, but I also think that's part of the natural maturation process."
The Rams (4-6-1) believe they have a keeper in the former Florida standout and Parade Magazine All-American whose star qualities shone through at North Alabama. The explosive potential was evident last week when Jenkins set a franchise record with the interceptions for scores.
Noting the Rams won by two touchdowns, coach Jeff Fisher said it could be argued persuasively that Jenkins was the reason.
"He's a very smart young man, he's got football instincts and athletic ability, but he also understands the game," Fisher said. "And that's what puts him in position to make those plays."
The only thing lacking last week was a perfect end zone celebration; Jenkins botched his try twice, to much razzing from teammates. He was trying to get the ball to spin on the turf long enough to also execute a dance of snapping imaginary rubber bands on his wrists as he circled the ball.
"They was cracking me," Jenkins said. "I couldn't get the ball to behave. I'm working on that, working on that."
The rebuilding Rams offer the opportunity to work on everything on the job. Another rookie, speedy receiver Chris Givens, also was suspended for the 49ers game and has since become more than just a deep threat, with five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown last week. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker are rookies, too, and first- and second-year players are major contributors throughout the NFL's youngest roster.
During the preseason, general manager Les Snead described the process of rebuilding a franchise coming off the worst stretch in NFL history — 15 wins in five seasons — as living with "growing pains" and "spilled milk."
"He's nowhere near where we expect him to be in his career because he's still learning," said Fisher, a former NFL defensive back. "He's guessing a little bit. Once he gets the feel for everything and has experienced everything, we think he's going to be a top-flight corner."
Jenkins was on that trajectory at Florida before getting dismissed by new coach Will Muschamp after a second arrest for marijuana possession in a four-month span. Two years earlier, police used a stun gun to subdue him and he was charged with arrest without violence.
He was a three-year starter for the Gators and considered one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC after he contained the likes of A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery despite playing much of his junior year with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Three months before getting dismissed at Florida, Jenkins had decided to return to school for his senior season. He ended up starring again, but far from Gainesville.
Jenkins liked the fit at North Alabama, then coached by Terry Bowden and a Division II power. Though he wasn't there long, Jenkins stood out, especially with punt returns of 92, 89 and 87 yards for scores.
Chris Willis, North Alabama's secondary coach last year and now the school's defensive coordinator, said at the Senior Bowl last January that Jenkins "was as good as advertised."
"We were able to isolate him with a single receiver and we could take the safeties and shift everybody to the other side," Willis said. "We could put him on the best receiver and tell him to lock him down."
Besides the eye-popping punt returns, Jenkins had two interceptions, a blocked kick and two fumble recoveries, helping North Alabama reach nine or more wins for the seventh straight season and advance to the second round of the playoffs. At the Senior Bowl, Jenkins bemoaned the fact that while at Florida he was issued three or four pair of cleats, he had to make do with a single pair at North Alabama.
"It was just a humbling experience," Jenkins said. "I put myself in that situation. I've just got to move on and just focus on now and not what happened in the past, what I could have made and what I'm making now."
The Rams leaned on scouting reports, combine interviews, a player visit to St. Louis and staff trips to Florida and Alabama before taking Jenkins with the second of their three second-round picks.
Now, there are no footwear concerns. More days like last Sunday, when he twice victimized Cardinals rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley, and there'll be no worries at all.
Ever aggressive, Jenkins jumped the route on a quick out intended for LaRod Stephens-Howling and had clear sailing on a 36-yard sideline score early in the second quarter. Late in the third, he had an easy pick on an underthrown pass by Lindley, who was under pressure from the pass rush and throwing off his back foot. Jenkins went for a 39-yard return that put the Rams up by 11.
The first interception ended the Rams' five-game turnover drought, tied for the NFL's longest since 1950. Led by the rookie, they got three more picks.
"A big relief," Jenkins said. "I felt that the defense came out and we played together. We tried to disguise coverage and tried to confuse the rookie quarterback as much as possible."
Jenkins gets his first chance at playing the NFC West-leading 49ers on Sunday after missing the first meeting on the road with that suspension. Jenkins stood uncomfortably on the sideline watching the teams battle it out for five quarters. A third player, backup defensive tackle Kellen Heard, was released the day before the game.
"It hurt him not to play, it hurt him not to be on the field," said cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the Rams' top pick-up in free agency and, at the not-so-crusty age of 28, the player entrusted to mentoring Jenkins. "I think that was enough in itself."
Though Jenkins made plenty of nice plays before the suspension, including a blocked field goal against the Jets, he's been more on task since then. And by all accounts, before and after getting spanked, whenever he's gotten schooled it hasn't kept him down for long.
"I think there hasn't been a game where he hasn't played like a first-rounder," Finnegan said. "It's just life of a defensive back. You get plays made on you, that's part of it.
"You learn from them, you get over them, you have a short memory and you go back out there and line up again."
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