GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It's looking more and more like Florida will have linebacker Jelani Jenkins back in the lineup for its home game against No. 4 LSU on Saturday.
His return couldn't have come at a better time for the 10th-ranked Gators.
Fourth-ranked LSU rolls into Gainesville with the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 rushing offense led by a pair of bruising tailbacks who have combined to rush for 613 yards and are averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Limiting the Tigers' success on the ground is Florida's top priority on defense and getting Jenkins back – provided he's cleared to play with a cast on his fractured right thumb – will help.
"We're going to see how it goes," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "Jelani's a tough kid. We'll see what he can do."
The 6-foot, 233-pound Jenkins was third on the team with 75 tackles last season and had five tackles before getting injured early in the Gators' victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 8. Though sophomore Michael Taylor and freshman Antonio Morrison have played well in his absence, Jenkins' experience against a team like LSU (5-0, 1-0 SEC) is invaluable.
"LSU in most situations offensively is going to give you some things they haven't shown before, so him being able to adjust [to] some things you haven't prepared for because you can't prepare for everything [helps]," Muschamp said. "Certainly, his experience, maturity, playmaking ability, being able to make some defensive calls and calm some guys down in situations in a game like this, there is no question it will be an added boost."
Especially against LSU's physical running game. Alfred Blue (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and Kenny Hilliard (6-0, 231) rank fourth and eighth, respectively, in the SEC in rushing yards per game. Blue has rushed for 270 yards and two touchdowns and Hilliard has run for 343 yards and six TDs.
The Tigers use a two-back set, which will allow the Gators (4-0, 3-0) to use three linebackers instead of being in nickel, as they have for the first four games because of the offenses they were facing. Jenkins's return reunites him with middle linebacker Jon Bostic and strongside linebacker Darrin Kitchens.
Bostic said getting Jenkins back will help not only in run defense but also in communicating with the rest of the defense.
"We have that chemistry between us," Bostic said. "With him coming back, we can kind of split the defense up where I'm going with the defensive line, he's going with the secondary, making sure everybody's on the same page."
The biggest adjustment for Jenkins – who is scheduled to get contact work in practice on Wednesday for the first time since his injury – will be playing with a cast on his right hand. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said it's easier for a linebacker to play with a cast than a defensive back and Jenkins will get used to it pretty quickly.
"I think it's the longer you go with it the easier and more accustomed you get to playing with it," Quinn said. "The first time out when you play with a cast sometimes it's, 'Ah, it feels big.' Or, 'Can we trim it off this spot here to get it where it feels just right?' And then after you play with it and practice with it for a few days then you make the necessary adjustments to it then usually you have a better feel for it."