John Jenkins hasn’t felt this good in a while.
After missing a significant portion of the preseason as well as three games in September hurt, the Saints nose tackle has made 10 of his 12 solo tackles this year in the past four contests his team has played. The second-year pro recently logged his sixth career start, and his team won for the fifth time with him in that capacity.
“For me, personally, that builds my confidence a lot because of the fact that the coaches trust me enough to put me out there,” Jenkins said after practice Thursday.
And confidence was something the former third-round draft selection out of Georgia didn’t have a surplus of in the early portion of a campaign that’s seen the Saints win five of their 12 games so far.
It wasn’t that Jenkins doubted whether he could hang at this level. He learned he could last season, when the Saints delivered the fourth 5-0 start in franchise history and he commanded the vast majority of the snaps at the center of the defensive line in those matchups because veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley hurt his calf early in Week 1.
The teams during that stretch weren’t necessarily easy for a rookie to face. Among them were the NFC runner-up from 2012 (the Falcons), a 3-0 Dolphins team and a 3-1 Chicago Bears squad the Saints visited for their first victory at Soldier Field in four attempts under coach Sean Payton.
Jenkins’ workload lightened after Bunkley came back, and the Saints lost when the younger of the two started in a Week 16 clash in Carolina that ultimately determined the winner of the NFC South.
Nonetheless, “I think we received really good production last year ... from a first-year player,” Payton said of Jenkins, who finished his rookie season with 22 solo tackles as well as a sack in the playoffs while frequently engaging multiple blockers on what were often run-defense snaps. “He ... handled that well.”
At a community event he attended in the spring, Jenkins expressed his hope of carrying over his form from 2013. Yet that wasn’t meant to be.
He injured a pectoral muscle lifting weights in between seasons, and he was sidelined for much of training camp, a pair of exhibitions and all but one game in September.
Jenkins was active again for the Saints’ first game in October, at home against Tampa Bay and backing up Bunkley. The Saints won, and Jenkins assisted on two tackles; but the 25-year-old wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t re-aggravate his pec injury, so he admitted he was much more reluctant than he otherwise would be.
“When you come off an injury like that, it’s ... mental as much as it is physical,” Jenkins said. “In my position, where you have to eat up two or three guys maybe, you just never know (what) can happen.”
That lingered until on Nov. 9, when the Saints clashed with San Francisco, who had one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses from 2011 through 2013. Jenkins only had one solo tackle, and the 49ers rushed 32 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 27-24 triumph.
Still, something important occurred for Jenkins that game.
“I knew it was going to be one of those hard-hitting, running type games, so mentally I had to prepare myself, ‘Hey, it’s going to be that type of game,’” Jenkins said.
That’s stuck, and it’s showed. Though the Saints have lost two of the three games they’ve played since, Jenkins hasn’t had fewer than three solo tackles. He’s also had two assists to up his total tackles to five in each of the last two outings, productive for someone at his position.
Meanwhile, Bunkley suffered a year-ending quad injury in a loss at home to Baltimore on Nov. 24. Jenkins started Nov. 30, and the Saints beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1987.
Jenkins’ backup, Brandon Deaderick, called it one of the highlights of his year to see his teammate turn the corner against the 49ers.
“It was great — you always want to see your teammates succeed, your friends — we’re out there together, we’re brothers,” Deaderick said. “These past couple of weeks, John’s played lights out. He’s really establishing himself as a solid nose (tackle) in this league.”
Jenkins won’t deny that his teammates’ compliments mean a lot to him. It’s just he values one thing more.
In Jenkins’ words: “If ... (I) go out there and we win games — hey, I’m happy.”