TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Timmy Jernigan never left Idaho’s backfield. The ball had been tossed 20 yards downfield, and his teammates scampered to chase down the Vandals’ Richard Montgomery as he rumbled for another 30, but Jernigan stood his ground.
He knew he hadn’t gotten beat, and he knew the play was a mirage.
“I saw the ref throw the flag,” Jernigan said. It wasn’t me being lazy or nothing like that. I know I’m a big dude, but I knew it was coming back.”
It’s hard to fault Idaho for the hold. What other choice did the Vandals have? Jernigan was on the field for only about 16 minutes of action Saturday, and he still racked up six tackles, including 4.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He tossed around linemen like rag dolls, once pushing his blocker backward onto the ball carrier for a tackle, a neat trick Jernigan bashfully laughed about afterward.
It’s possible Saturday was Jernigan’s final appearance at Doak Campbell Stadium, should the projected first-round pick decide to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft, but that image of the behemoth in the No. 8 jersey, patiently waiting for the proceedings to reconvene around him would make for an appropriate ending.
All season, Jernigan has been the man controlling the action, but rarely has he been the one at center stage. He’s usually the one setting the the pieces in motion for the players around him, and so even within his own conference, Pitt’s Aaron Donald or Wake Forest’s Nikita Whitlock manage to steal the limited spotlight offered to defensive tackles.
But make no mistake, Jernigan is dominating.
“He’s a great player, and he makes two other guys great because he takes the double teams and stuff you have to do to block him and account for him,” Jimbo Fisher said.
For the season, Jernigan has racked up a team-leading 10.5 tackles for loss, in spite of an abridged workload due to Florida State’s litany of blowout wins. He’s been a force up the middle, opening gaps for linebackers and squashing running backs who dare to tread between the tackles. He’s a monster, and and he expects the opposition to be afraid.
“I feel like it’s almost disrespectful if you don’t double team me every play,” Jernigan said. “I feel like that’s saying something if you feel like you don’t have to double team me.”
Jernigan is rarely disrespected. On a defense chock full of athletic playmakers, the man in the middle of Florida State’s defensive line gets top billing in the offensive meeting rooms of teams hoping to find some way to keep the monster at bay.
"He alters the whole process of what an offensive coordinator can call,” linebacker Telvin Smith said.
Jernigan is all energy, a black hole on defense, swallowing up everything around him until the offense disappears. He’s mean, he’s attacking, and he’s unwavering.
The irony of Jernigan’s ferociousness on the field is that, away from it, he’s quiet, thoughtful and unassuming. He speaks in hushed tones, still oozing confidence but almost embarrassed by his success.
Then Saturday arrives, a switch flips, and Jernigan is the monster once again.
“I’m a totally different person on the field, high energy,” Jernigan said. “It just happens. When you walk through that tunnel, if you’re not ready to play, something is wrong.”
And if Jernigan was at his ferocious best against lowly Idaho, this week’s showdown against Florida figures to be a gruesome affair.
Jernigan actually grew up a Gators fan. At Columbia High in Lake City, Fla., he was surrounded by blue and orange, and his own mother was a die-hard Florida supporter. For a while, that’s where Jernigan figured he’d play, too.
But it was actually at a Florida-FSU game in Tallahassee that he realized he belonged in a Seminoles jersey. Now, there’s no love lost between Jernigan and his former favorite team. Instead, he’s expecting a battle.
“I feel like they’ll play us as tough as any offensive line has up front,” Jernigan said of the 4-7 Gators. “I know they’re going to come out and try to run the ball right down our throats.”
Plenty have tried, but few have bested Jernigan in the trenches.
After last week’s game, Fisher marveled at what his defensive tackle could do. The line of scrimmage belonged to Jernigan, not simply because he was bigger and faster and stronger, but also smarter.
“His physicality, man, but he’s become a technician,” Fisher said. “And with his athletic ability, he’s hard to handle.”
As he left the field Saturday, Jernigan took a moment to soak in the atmosphere. Maybe it was his last home game. He’d be lying if he said the thought wasn’t in the back of his mind.
But more than that, he wanted to savor the feeling of another dominant performance, appreciate what was being accomplished even if so much of his work is best appreciated days later when the coaches break down the film.
“We’ve got a real good vibe about us, and we look forward to dominating every week,” Jernigan said. “But we have a big task at hand trying to get to the national championship and trying to beat Florida. So that’s what I’m focused on.”