MAURICE JENKINS KNOWS THAT SOME PARENTS HAVE THEIR CHILDREN FILL OUT PRO-and-con lists when deciding where to attend college. But Maurice, an architect who designs dream homes in and around Washington, D.C., prefers precise detail to generalities. So to help his son Jelani sift through dozens of scholarship offers, Maurice designed a matrix of several criteria to help narrow the choices.
Florida coach Will Muschamp can thank the elder Jenkins for that framework. Without it Jelani Jenkins probably wouldn't be a starting linebacker in Gainesville. Jenkins, who grew up in Olney, Md., had followed Florida's football team, but when then Gators coach Urban Meyer offered a scholarship in 2008, Jenkins didn't know how the school would stack up academically against Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC and some of the other powerhouses who sought his services. Jenkins may have been a five-star recruit with the speed to tackle ballcarriers from sideline to sideline, but he was also a (weighted) 4.0 student at Olney's Our Lady of Good Counsel High. U.S. News & World Report's academic rankings carried almost as much weight as Associated Press's football rankings.
Enter Maurice's matrix, which used spreadsheets and freehand work to determine how schools ranked in terms of academic prestige, graduation rates, postgraduation employment, diversity and other factors. Schools near the top of the list in the most categories rose to the top of the matrix. "We wanted to be sure Jelani ultimately made the decision," Maurice says. "But we wanted some type of [rigorous] method for coming up with the decision."
In his father's system, Jenkins says, "Florida kept popping out." After Jenkins signed, Meyer noted that Jenkins had considered different factors than most recruits. "He didn't ask how many linebackers we had," Meyer said in February 2009. "He just said, 'I want to play.'"
Jenkins, rated the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker prospect by Rivals.com, was happy to be patient behind veterans Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper, but he assumed he would soon crack the two-deep depth chart. Then an ankle injury forced him to redshirt as a freshman. Instead of sulking, Jenkins started soaking up wisdom from his soon-to-depart teammates. "I asked them all the questions I could," Jenkins recalls. "As much as I wanted to play, when I got hurt, I took it as a blessing in disguise."
The Gators hope Jenkins was listening attentively. Though only a redshirt sophomore with one year's starting experience, he'll be expected to lead Florida's talented but inexperienced defense. He provides a role model for teammates such as defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, who came to Florida in 2010 and learned the hard way that they couldn't immediately live up to their lofty recruiting rankings. "I told them to keep pushing," Jenkins says. "The more work you put in, the better the results will be. Everybody's going to get their shot."
Jenkins got his in 2010, and he finished second on the team with 76 tackles. In '11 he will look to lead the Gators not just in tackles but also, his father says, in less-quantifiable categories. "Great players make people great around them," Maurice recalls telling his son. "You can master your craft. You can master your skill set. But football is very much a team sport. How do you inspire other people around you to be great?" Sounds like a blueprint.