tampabay.com

Where he needs to be

USF senior Mike Jenkins, whose next stop is the NFL, has never been far from home.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007


TAMPA

For all of Mike Jenkins' breathtaking speed, he couldn't get home to Bradenton fast enough when he got the phone call.

It was during two-a-day practices in August when Jenkins got a call from his 10-year-old brother, Ciyon, crying. Their mother, Kathy Gray, who has diabetes, was not waking up.

His brother's cell phone was the only number Ciyon could think of, and Jenkins told him, 'Wake her up! Pour water on her if you have to!' Ciyon said he already had, so Jenkins, 22, called 911, then hurried home as quickly as his car could get him there.

His mother was already in a hospital when Jenkins got there, and today Kathy Gray is doing fine, her diabetes stable and under control. She'll join him on the field tonight at Raymond James Stadium as the Bulls honor their seniors before their final home game, against Louisville. She has never been happier to have her son so close to home.

"When Mike was being recruited, I left it to him to make his own decision," said Gray, who works for the Manatee County School Board. "He had a lot of offers, but I did tell him, 'Mike, you can either be less than an hour from us, or a long way from home. And you like to run home to me and take care of me and your brother.' "

Gray remembers warning USF coach Jim Leavitt that she might need her son to help his family, with little or no notice. "Would that be a problem?" she asked, and he told her it wouldn't.

"I love Coach Leavitt for having that type of understanding," she said. "I never know when something might happen, and it's good to know Mike's not far away."

The Tampa Bay area has been home for Jenkins, who was born in Germany while Gray was stationed there as a computer operator in the U.S. Army. She has been out of the military since 1990. Jenkins said being close to his mother was "the most important reason I came here," and her guidance is a major reason he has been able to enjoy his senior year with the Bulls and put himself in position to be USF's highest-ever draft pick.

Jenkins, 6 feet and 197 pounds, had shown enough in his first three years at USF that he considered leaving early for the NFL last year. The league's advisory committee told him he was projected as a fifth-round pick, which meant a comparably small signing bonus, with no real guarantee of making an NFL roster. Still, he knew an NFL paycheck would allow him to take better care of his mother and of Ciyon. She encouraged him to stay and get his degree - he's due to graduate in May in criminology - and Leavitt told him the same.

"Coach Leavitt told me last year that I had a low (draft) grade, but within a matter of months it's going to be a 1 (first round) or 2," Jenkins said. "It happened just like that."

To call it a smart decision is to say Jenkins is fast: He's now projected as a first-round pick, rated by draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. as the nation's top senior cornerback and the No. 9 overall senior prospect. Even a mid first-rounder is a multimillionaire before taking his first NFL snap: Last year's 18th pick, cornerback Leon Hall, had a reported $8.2-million in guaranteed money in his first contract with the Bengals.

Gray can't think that far ahead. She's thinking about today, how she'll feel on the field, and remembering how her son "started out playing football as a 4-year-old kid in the road."

Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham has high praise for Jenkins, especially his speed and confidence, a rare combination that reminds him of a cornerback from his Florida State days who turned into a decent NFL player.

"He can bait quarterbacks, act like he's off the receiver when he knows just how far he needs to be. He reminds me of Deion (Sanders) that way," Burnham said. "You don't coach that, and he has tremendous athletic ability, the feet, the hips, but it's more about being smart and studying your opponents. He does that so well."

Jenkins is still humble; facing another future first-round pick in Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm today, he said he won't be doing much baiting.

"I've definitely got this game as one of the most important games I'll play in. I know I need to bring my A game," he said.

Burnham said Jenkins' speed is best seen on plays that shouldn't involve him. It's easy to see his 100-yard touchdown on his first college kickoff return against Cincinnati, but Burnham likes the previous play, when a Bearcats receiver made a jumping grab and Jenkins nearly tracked him down, making up ground and hitting him just as he got to the end zone. In last year's upset against West Virginia he did that twice, turning two apparent touchdowns into a field goal and a goal-line fumble.

"I've never seen anyone outrun him," Burnham said. "He has great closing speed, and he can make finesse plays, but he can be physical, can really lay people out."

Jenkins' father hasn't been a regular part of his life since Jenkins' parents separated 17 years ago, divorcing five years later. And Gray isn't the only family giving Jenkins a lift. He and his girlfriend of four years, Katie Day, became parents last spring, and his 9-month-old son, Mekhi, is a constant source of joy.

"He makes me happy when I have rough days," Jenkins said. "I can just go to him and he makes me smile."

Jenkins will do that today for his mother, who hasn't always known if her son would have a Senior Day, or whether she'd be able to enjoy it with him at midfield.

"It will be very special," she said. "I've been there for him and he's been there for me. For him to be a senior, to do what he's done, to accomplish his goals in college and now be able to move up to the next level, we're very excited."