WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The first hint something special was on tap that night in late September 2013 was when nose tackle John Jenkins slid over and lined up at left defensive end.
Defensive end isn’t where most would expect to find Jenkins, then a rookie tilting the scales at 359 pounds, or 45 more than the heaviest player the Saints listed at that spot at the time. But Jenkins looked the part when he charged at Dolphins right tackle Tyson Clabo after the snap.
Jenkins batted Clabo’s arms away to the outside and nimbly cut to the inside of the visiting team’s tackle. Clabo backpedaled in an effort to adjust, but Jenkins was too quick, and Clabo couldn’t re-establish his position.
Jenkins shoved the unbalanced Clabo back toward Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was cocking his right arm back to throw. Clabo fell and swept Tannehill’s left leg from under him as the quarterback stepped up with it to throw. The pass was off target, and the Saints intercepted it en route to a 38-17 Week 4 victory.
The play did not directly boost Jenkins’ relatively understated stat line. But it clearly demonstrates why the Saints are glad Jenkins was removed from the physically unable to perform list Sunday and participate in practice for the first time since training camp opened at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on July 24.
“He had some (pass) rush value for a big guy,” Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson said Tuesday of Jenkins, who missed offseason practices as well as minicamp in May and June after hurting a pectoral muscle weight-lifting. “A lot of times those guys don’t have a lot of rush value.”
“But,” Johnson added, “he’s a good athlete, (so) he’s got a good future ahead of him.”
There was no underestimating either Jenkins’ athleticism or potential in the months after the Saints chose him out of Georgia in the third round of the 2013 draft.
He played 188 of the 289 snaps the Saints’ defense took in the first five games of his rookie year after veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley hurt a calf muscle early in a Week 1 win at Atlanta. Some wondered whether that kind of a workload was sustainable for someone Jenkins’ size.
Jenkins showed it was, tallying eight solo tackles, six quarterback hurries and two quarterback hits in those games, all of which New Orleans won while stringing together the fourth 5-0 start in franchise history.
Jenkins saw less action when Bunkley returned, being deployed on 293 snaps in the next 11 regular-season games and two playoff contests. But Jenkins ended the season on a high note, earning credit for a personal-best five solo tackles in the NFC wildcard win at Philadelphia.
He also dropped Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson behind the line of scrimmage for his first career sack in the divisional-round defeat at Seattle.
When the offseason arrived, Jenkins had 22 solo tackles, four quarterback hits, and 10 quarterback hurries.
Those quarterback hurries were nine more than Bunkley had and the fourth most for the Saints, who surrendered the fourth-fewest yards and points in the NFL. He tallied them while playing fewer snaps than 12 of his defensive teammates.
“My role in this defense is to free up the linebackers, take up as many blocks as I can, flush the pocket” of protection for quarterbacks, Jenkins said Tuesday. “A lot of what I do is taken for granted: People don’t understand the job that I have to do. But at the end of the day, as long as I’m doing what I am supposed to do ... then I’m happy.”
Preparing for his second year as a pro, doing what he was supposed to was decidedly less glamorous than at the heights of his rookie campaign. He was restricted to pumping leg weights and reviewing film to study opponents’ formations and protection schemes, Johnson said.
Jenkins jogged and sprinted with conditioning coaches while rehabbing his chest injury for the first 11 mornings of practice at training camp. He managed to drop in weight to 347 pounds.
Meanwhile, the rest of Jenkins’ fellow Saints concentrated on pass-rushing, run-stuffing and full-team drills. They played an intrasquad scrimmage and won an exhibition at St. Louis without him, too.
“I was anxious (to return), man,” Jenkins said. “This is what I do for a living.”
The memory of Jenkins’ performance as an NFL newbie fresh on his mind, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sounded equally eager to bring the young lineman back into the fold.
“John is going to be a big part of our defense” again, Ryan said. “Anytime you can get an excellent player back, it’s a good thing for us.”