Size Aside, Jenkins Can Be Impressive : Football: Former Cal State Fullerton standout hopes quickness and instinct will put him on the Ram defensive line.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A.J. Jenkins can only hope his exhibition season debut with the Rams this summer will leave an impression similar to the first time he played for Cal State Fullerton.

Jenkins, a transfer from Merced College, had to complete a summer school course to become eligible and was able to practice only four days at Fullerton before the Titans opened the 1987 football season at Hawaii.

"My dad kept telling me how great this new defensive end was, but I was taking a sort of I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude," recalled Tim Murphy, son of Titan Coach Gene Murphy.

Tim Murphy could have been excused for saying, "If he's so great, how did we get him?" but he held his tongue and reserved judgment until that Saturday afternoon in Aloha Stadium.

Then, like his father, Murphy was convinced.

"A.J. just went wild," Murphy said. "He just went off."

As trips to Hawaii go, this was no vacation for the Titans. Hawaii, which unveiled a new offense that was a combination of a wishbone and a run-and-shoot, rolled to a 44-0 victory. And it wasn't really that close. The Rainbows compiled 598 yards of offense.

But Jenkins--whose preparation was limited to "line up on the opposite side of the field from their tight end and go find the ball"--had a regular picnic in paradise, getting 10 solo tackles.

"I had a great game, but we were playing against that weird offense and they were running up and down the field and I was on all the special teams and played the whole game on defense," Jenkins said. "What I remember most is that I was tired. That was some experience for me."

It wasn't a fluke, either. On a team on which the inside linebackers make most of the tackles, Jenkins, a defensive end, finished the season as the Titans' second-leading tackler with 60 tackles and three sacks. His senior year, he had 77 tackles, including 19 behind the line of scrimmage, and nine sacks.

"He's probably the most instinctive defensive player I've ever been around," Gene Murphy said. "You know, he was always too small and not fast enough, but he was always around the ball.

"God just gave him great fast-twitch (muscles) and this instinct for the football."

Had Jenkins also been blessed with a bigger frame, he might have ended up a very rich man. Just ask Ram rookie Sean Gilbert's financial planners.

But there aren't too many 6-foot-2, 235-pound defensive linemen in the NFL. There aren't too many 6-2, 235-pound defensive linemen playing major college ball, for that matter. And that's one of the reasons Jenkins, who led the nation in sacks with 16 as a sophomore at Merced and was named the state's most valuable defensive player, ended up at Fullerton.

Clearly, it has been a sizable problem all his sporting life.

Jenkins left tiny Havelock, N.C., to attend Merced because his high school coach knew the Merced basketball coach.

"I didn't have any major college offers out of high school because I wasn't big enough. I was like 164 (pounds) and playing defensive tackle. And I wasn't that fast. I was quick, but my times in the 40 weren't that great.

"When I got to Merced, they tried to move me to receiver, but I didn't want to play receiver so I just sat on the bench for the first three games. Then somebody got hurt and they put me on the defensive line and I played every game after that."

Jenkins added a bit of bulk--he was up around the 200 mark by the time he became a Titan--but his accomplishments at Merced still didn't attract big school offers. He was about 225 when he finished his career at Fullerton and no one projected him as a high-round draft choice.

His quickness and knack for being in the right place at the right time on a football field did persuade the Pittsburgh Steelers to give him a shot, though, and they drafted Jenkins in the ninth round of the 1989 draft.

Pittsburgh wasn't the only franchise interested.

"I liked him a lot out of college," said George Dyer, the Rams' defensive line coach who then held the same position with Seattle. "The kid's a great pass rusher. I fought like heck to draft him and I was disappointed when we didn't get him."

The Steelers weren't disappointed, though. Jenkins appeared in all 16 games during his rookie season, playing on all the Pittsburgh special teams, a little bit as an outside linebacker and some at right defensive end in passing situations.

"Joe Greene was my coach and I had a good relationship with Chuck Noll," Jenkins said. "Things were going great. Then, in the playoffs against Houston on New Year's Eve, I was making a tackle and my foot got caught in the turf and I hurt my knee.

"It wasn't like I took a blow on it or anything, but I had to have it scoped," he said, referring to his arthroscopic surgery.

Jenkins was back at full speed when the 1990 season began. Again displaying his habit for opening-day heroics, he picked up two sacks against Cleveland during the first game. He played in three more games before suffering a sprain in the same right knee during practice.

"Chuck's practices were gruesome," Jenkins said. "Practice in Pittsburgh is pretty much full go all the time. A guy leg-whipped me. I don't think he meant to do it, it was just reaction.

"It was just a sprain and I got healthy pretty quick, but the way the roster was, they didn't put me back on right away. They only had one move left before the playoffs, so they didn't use it until the end of the season."

Jenkins returned for the season finale. It was the last time he has played in a regular-season NFL game. Last year, he injured his right knee again, during an exhibition game against the Redskins and the Steelers eventually released him.

Jenkins, wiping sweat from his brow after a recent workout at Rams Park, assures that his knee is fine now. He says the knee is strong, and he's focused on making the most of the second chance the Rams provided when they signed him as a free agent this spring.

"The knee is good," he said. "I've been working with one of the best trainers around, Gary Tuthill, every day. I didn't have any problems with it in mini-camp, so I'm back and feeling good."

Dyer hopes so. He would love to see Jenkins become another Rufus Porter, the 6-1, 226-pound former special teams specialist who evolved into a starter under Dyer's tutelage at Seattle.

"It got to the point where we couldn't afford to keep Porter off the field," Dyer said. "And if you're realistic about Jenkins, you'd have to say he's undersized, but he's a tough kid and he plays hard. And his pass-rushing ability, I mean the guy can light it up on the pass rush."

Those kinds of compliments are nice--especially when they're delivered by a guy who will have a say in deciding your future--but Jenkins knows he is a long way from making the Rams' final roster.

"Since I'm a small defensive end, I'm going to have to really prove I can play," Jenkins said. "There are plenty of guys out here who are the right size and height, so if everything else was equal, they'd have the advantage.

"I've got to prove my quickness allows me to play the position. I wouldn't have much of a chance otherwise. Those 300-pound offensive lineman would blow me 30 yards down the field."

Jenkins hopes to spend a good portion of the summer in some quarterback's face, but he doesn't intend to rest on his pass-rushing laurels.

"That's the place I'm going to make my mark, but I think I'll have to do some other things to make this team," he said. "I can also play on every special team and I was ranked way up there in special teams at Pittsburgh.

"Anything I can do."

And Jenkins has already figured out one thing not to do. He won't be hanging out with Gilbert, who's 6-4 and 317 pounds.

"If I stand near him," Jenkins says, "I look like a bug next to an 18-wheeler."

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