Jenkins tries to corner perfection

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

By all accounts, Malcolm Jenkins could have spent August in an NFL training camp.

Five teams drafted cornerbacks in the first round of April's draft -- Buffalo, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, San Diego -- and Jenkins would have been a great fit with any of them. He had recorded four interceptions and seven pass deflections in back-to-back seasons, earned consecutive first-team All-Big Ten selections and several All-America mentions.

An NFL prototype at 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Jenkins was regarded as one of the best, if not the best cornerback in last year's class. But he opted to return to Ohio State for his senior season, saying he still had more to accomplish as a college player.

Jenkins reported for Buckeyes preseason camp Aug. 3, just as he had the previous three years. He tried to focus on the coming season and the unfinished goals ahead of him -- a national title, the Thorpe Award -- but he couldn't completely block out his own hype.

"The hardest thing in sports, period, and kind of in life, is to handle praise," Jenkins said. "It's kind of easy to handle people doubting you and saying you can't do things because if you have a strong-enough attitude, you'll just use that as fuel.

"But whenever you have people telling you that you're at the top and you're the best, it's hard not to believe it. It's hard to motivate yourself. Your attitude is, 'Well, if I'm at the top, how much better can I get?'"

Mike Doss had an answer, and the former Ohio State star safety and NFL free agent approached Jenkins during camp.

Jenkins wasn't performing poorly or even below average. But he left a few plays on the field during practices and lacked his trademark zest.

"I wouldn't say I settled, but I did get a little comfortable where I was," Jenkins said. "I heard all this talk about how I'm the No. 1 corner, this, this and that."

Doss showed Jenkins a highlight film of Antoine Winfield, the former Thorpe Award winner at Ohio State who plays for the Minnesota Vikings. Jenkins saw the way Winfield blitzed, how he closed on the ball to make tackles, how he flew around the field.

He saw a shorter and smaller player -- Winfield is 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds -- repeatedly make big plays.

"That just kind of brought me back to earth," Jenkins said. "You can turn on the game film -- it doesn't necessarily have to be his highlights -- and see how he impacts the game, how he makes plays when sometimes they're not there and just the passion that he plays with. He played real, real physical, and he hits guys when they catch it.

"It let me know there's still work to be done and there's still things I can accomplish. I can play a lot better than I have."

In recent weeks Jenkins has taken his game to a higher level. Jenkins sealed Ohio State's 20-17 win at Wisconsin by intercepting an Allan Evridge pass in the final minute.

The next week against Purdue, he recorded his 11th career interception and blocked a punt that teammate Etienne Sabino returned to the end zone for the game's only touchdown.

Last week, he recorded nine tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble that Thaddeus Gibson returned for a touchdown against Michigan State.

As Jenkins' college career winds down, he's stepping up.

"He doesn't want to be remembered as one of the best," Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "He wants to be remembered as the best. That's the way he is."

Jenkins and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson often talk about perfection. Johnson requests it, and Jenkins tries to deliver.

Back on Oct. 1, Johnson challenged Jenkins to take the next step, telling The Cleveland Plain Dealer, "He's playing good, but we need him to play great and he needs to play great. The demands we put on him are the same demands he puts on himself."

"Me playing good is not good enough to help this team," Jenkins said this week. "We need the captains to play great."

For Jenkins, watching past Ohio State greats has hammered home that point. In addition to showing the Winfield highlights, Doss had Jenkins and Ohio State's other defensive backs watch tape from Buckeyes practices in 1998.

Doss was a freshman, Winfield a senior captain and Nate Clements a freshman.

"[Doss] said, 'We've got to get back to this old mentality of dominating,'" Jenkins recalled. "Just the way they competed in the 1-on-1s and things like that, Mike felt that we weren't competing like we needed to. Since then, it's kind of sparked something in everybody."

Despite his recent play, Jenkins still waits for a breakout game, the type of effort that would reconfirm him as the nation's top cornerback. Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are well aware of his reputation and gear the game plans away from him, but Jenkins estimates that at least two passes a game come his way, usually deep balls. As the boundary corner, he also plays a critical role as a run-stopper.

An opportunity to shine arrives Saturday night against No. 3 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), which boasts the Big Ten's top scoring offense (45.4 ppg) and three senior wide receivers -- Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

"He's an NFL corner," Butler said of Jenkins. "He can run with you down the field and he can cover. He does everything so well. He's a complete corner. He's a real competitor."

There's that praise again, with those three familiar letters attached to it. But Jenkins has learned not to soak it up.

He references a quote Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often brings up to the players. The originator is unknown, but the message hits its mark.

If you can't win, make the fellow ahead of you break the record.

"I know there's somebody out there better than me," Jenkins said, "or at least I'm going to convince myself of that and go from there."

Jenkins ranks fourth on the team in tackles (36) and has played a role in five takeways this year. More accolades are on the way after the season, and Tressel said the senior has secured a spot in program history.

"There's no question he'll be mentioned in the same breath with the great ones who have been here," Tressel said, "the Chris Gambles or the Shawn Springs or the Nate Clements or the Antoine Winfields and on and on and on."

Jenkins hopes the remaining games will solidify his legacy.

"I only have four [regular-season] opportunities left," he said, "so I'm definitely going to try to make the best out of them. And hopefully, at the end of the four games, people will regard me as one of the best corners to come through Ohio State."