METAIRIE - Despite being on the fast track to becoming one of the top young safeties in the NFL, it’s no secret Malcolm Jenkins experienced some bumps in the road - especially as a rookie.
New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams saw to it.
Jenkins, an All-American cornerback at Ohio State, was the first player chosen by the Saints in the 2009 draft after Williams was hired to bring an aggressive style of play to complement Sean Payton’s record-setting offense.
Williams isn’t shy about expressing his disdain for rookies, and has often said flatly he doesn’t like them. Which Jenkins, the 14th overall pick in 2009, learned quickly when he arrived at the Saints training facility.
“Absolutely,” a smiling Jenkins said when asked about Williams’ tough-love approach. “Any rookie, it doesn’t matter who you are, he’s going to curse you out every single day - for a whole year.”
Certainly, there is a method to Williams’ madness.
“When you get a guy that’s young, you get a guy to mold and that’s better than a guy that comes in and thinks he knows everything,” Williams said.
“When those guys walk through that door, we want to make sure we put a stamp on them. We break them down before we build them up. Sometimes you have to break a thoroughbred before you bridle him.”
It happens even with an accomplished and polished college player like Jenkins, who passed on a chance to go pro a year early in 2008 to return to Ohio State to complete his degree requirements.
But Jenkins learned how to deal with Williams, which helped him get some playing time as a cornerback when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV before he was switched to free safety before the 2010 season.
“If you don’t laugh at it, it will drive you crazy,” Jenkins said of Williams’ tactics. “You have to laugh at Gregg sometimes. You just let him talk, and then move on from there.”
After all, Jenkins said, only good can come from it.
“You have to be strong-minded, let it roll off your shoulders, and continue to get better because he will coach you up,” Jenkins said. “Once you get through all the hoopla, there is a good point at the end.”
As such, Jenkins said Williams has been an inspiration for him to become better at what he does even after a breakout season as the Saints’ starting free safety last year.
“When they were trying to get me before the draft, he (Williams) told me that from what he’s seen on film and through my work ethic, he thinks I can be great as long as I keep that edge,” Jenkins said. “I try to stay hungry, continue to learn, and not get complacent. The rest will take care of itself.”
There were, to be sure, some rough patches when Jenkins was forced into the starting lineup when injuries to cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter struck during their Super Bowl run.
Jenkins finished with 51 total tackles and one interception that year before moving to the back end of the secondary in the spring of 2010. There, he settled in as the starter and had 82 tackles, two interceptions and a sack.
He played the way the Saints envisioned when they drafted him, even though they never talked about him playing safety. Still, he handled the position change seamlessly.
“He’s a smart player,” Payton said. “The decisions he makes on the field are generally the right ones. He’s in great shape, which is very important to him.
“He’s really become an outstanding player, and it’s happening right in front of our eyes. We saw signs of it in his rookie season, and we certainly saw it in his contributions last year.”
Jenkins, however, will be the first to tell you he still has a long way to go and is learning the free safety position.
Yet, he’s having a big training camp. He’s intercepted Drew Brees several times the first two weeks of practice, including one when he baited the five-time Pro Bowl quarterback into making a throw he shouldn’t have.
“I’ve learned that if you pick Drew off, it’s nothing you did ? he probably made a mistake,” Jenkins said with a laugh. “You just take it and be quiet because if he targets you, it’s going to be a long day for you.”
Saints Camp 2011
5800 Airline Drive, Metairie
Practice, 4-6:30 p.m. (closed to the public)
49ers vs. Saints, Superdome, 7 p.m.