Quite often at this point in the season, when the number of teams playing is small and the rewards for them great, the starting quarterbacks are either a grizzled veteran, BCS-level transfer or both. But as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, Jacksonville State’s Jenkins is the youngest starting quarterback left in the field.
“That’s pretty decent, there,” he said. “I never thought about it like that. It’s kind of crazy, I guess.
“Each one of us practices like we’re the starter every day so when the time comes you’re ready. My time is now, so I’ve got to be ready, even if I’m not ready.”
Ready or not, here he comes. Jenkins played the first three quarters of the Gamecocks’ 55-14 first-round blowout of Samford and barring a bad week of practice, with junior Max Shortell still bothered by a shoulder problem, he is in line to start again Saturday in the second round at No. 6 national seed McNeese State (10-2).
The Gamecocks (10-3) had been rotating Jenkins and Shortell all season, with a little bit of Kyle West in between. Jenkins has been the guy the last two weeks as Shortell has struggled with a bad shoulder.
Against Samford, Jenkins ran for 115 yards, passed for 115 more and produced a touchdown each way.
Jenkins broke a 72-yard scoring run in the first quarter, and the 47-yard touchdown pass he threw to Telvin Brown in the second quarter was the first scoring strike of his career.
He goes into this week as JSU’s second-leading rusher with 738 yards and eight touchdowns. Interestingly, he didn’t run much in high school, and the only times he did was when he was forced to scramble. He was largely a passer and is starting to regain his poise in that area with the Gamecocks after an admitted early-season bout with a lack of confidence.
“I think I’m doing pretty good as time has gone by,” he said. “It’s kind of coming back to me.”
Jenkins had been described within the program as a potential next Ryan Perrilloux, the LSU transfer who led the Gamecocks to back-to-back 8-3 seasons in 2008 and 2009 and is now playing in the CFL.
All he has wanted was a chance to play quarterback, but was worked as a defensive back last year. New coach Bill Clark moved him back to quarterback in the spring and Jenkins has been there every since with no return in sight.
“When they moved him to safety I didn’t think he’d ever make it back to the offensive side of things,” senior linebacker Robert Gray said. “They moved him back and every opportunity he gets he’s taken advantage of.”
Jenkins has completed 55 of 95 passes for 640 yards and a passer rating of 113.75 this season. Over the last two weeks he has completed 18 of 32 for 262 yards. He has been a 100-yard rusher in each of the two games. McNeese State coach Matt Viator called him “a little scary” Monday.
“I think what you’re seeing out of Eli is the confidence that comes with playing and playing against good opponents,” Clark said. “This is exactly who we saw in the spring and it’s exactly why we named him the starter going into the (season-opening) Alabama State game.
“All our quarterbacks have performed well in their opportunities. I think one thing we’ve done we’ve kind of built the offense around his talents and then to see him have confidence and play relaxed has really been fun to watch.”
His teammates don’t think Jenkins plays like he is 19 years, 3 months and 26 days old, certainly not like a freshman. The next youngest starter among the remaining 15 teams is Furman sophomore Reese Hannon. Three other starters are red-shirt sophomores.
“Eli is young but he plays with maturity,” kicker Griffin Thomas said. “He’s playing like it could be his last season. The seniors appreciate that.”
What is new to Jenkins is his role as a playoff starting quarterback. His high school team made it to postseason play his ninth-grade year, but he was playing safety and wide receiver. He is liking this chance a lot.
“I’m just ready to keep going,” he said. “The team that wants to win keeps winning. I feel like everybody wants to be here, and I’m going to produce as long as I’m given the opportunity to.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.