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Word of mouth spreads on Panthers' Jenkins

HOUSTON -- From his seat inside Reliant Stadium yesterday, Carolina Panther Kris Jenkins had a lofty view of the frenzy that is Super Bowl media day. If he looked comfortable amid the mania, it was never more apparent than when the looming presence of one Warren Sapp strolled by, not 15 feet away.

Jenkins heard the booming voice and merely smiled at Sapp, here as a reporter for the NFL Network and not as the undisputed king of defensive linemen. Then, with a nod of his head, Jenkins -- from high up on podium No. 10 -- went on with the questions, as if waving Sapp aside, asking the Buccaneer to blend into the background. Was it symbolic of the belief that many hold, that Jenkins has established himself as the premier defensive tackle in the game?

Again, the young man from Ypsilanti, Mich., smiled.

"That's not for me to say," said Jenkins, who at 24 already has played three seasons for the Panthers. "My job is to play. If that's what's said, that's what's said, but for me, that's not my focus."

But it has been said, Jenkins was told. First, from a less than objective person -- teammate Brentson Buckner causing a minor firestorm before the season by saying Jenkins was better than Sapp; then, from an anonymous group of 10 NFL general managers polled several months ago by the Dallas Morning News.

"My focus," said Jenkins, again trying to deflect the question, "is to enjoy this, go out and try to get this win."

But as the questions continued, Jenkins finally conceded that "I'd like to be the best. I work to be the best, and when I retire, I might have a different view."

Jenkins's soaring popularity with NFL observers has come the hard way, he said, because it wasn't too long ago that the opinion was moving in the opposite direction. It was the spring of 2001 when Jenkins became stressed out in the days leading up to the NFL draft. "I took my cellphone and left it in the car," he said. "I went fishing. I was doing different things to get my mind off [the draft]."

He could only handle so much fishing, however, and later he watched television and kept seeing names flash across the bottom of the screen. Through the first round, he hadn't seen his own. Jenkins wondered why, his mood going from disappointment to anger to wonderment.

Then, with the 44th overall pick, the Panthers chose the mountain of a man from the University of Maryland.

Jenkins has squat-pressed 700 pounds, bench-pressed 450, and pressed cleanly 363, but he's never understood how he slipped that far in the draft.

Then again, he never has figured out why Michigan State dragged its feet on a scholarship offer -- especially after he said he wouldn't play for archrival Michigan -- a situation that led him to Maryland.

At 6 feet 4 inches and 335 pounds, Jenkins arrived at training camp in 2001 a 22-year-old with long hair, a suspect attitude, and a questionable work ethic. He started 11 games for a team that went 1-15 and while he wasn't considered a "project," Jenkins certainly needed some serious polish. To his credit, he knew it, too.

"It's my third year," said Jenkins. "I'm learning as I go along."

Mike Trgovac now is Carolina's defensive coordinator, but he came to the team in 2002 as the coach of the defensive line and knew that there had been some concerns about Jenkins. "I was with the Redskins when he was at Maryland, so I had followed him," said Trgovac, who was delighted to see Jenkins had cut his hair and shown more interest in watching game film.

Credit the new position coach? Well, yes and no, because Trgovac said you can't underestimate the importance of Kris Jr. He entered Jenkins's life at a time when he needed stability and "when all of a sudden you have a little one to take care of," said Trgovac, "it kind of changes you a little bit."

In a most positive way, Panthers players will tell you, because in 2002 Jenkins established himself as a premier lineman. Though teammate Julius Peppers stole a lot of the spotlight with 12 sacks and an All-Pro season, Jenkins settled into the front line that also featured Buckner and Mike Rucker. When in the days leading up to the 2003 season Panthers management made it a priority to sign Jenkins, Peppers, Rucker, and Buckner to long-term contracts, the four of them seemed to take that as a sign that they were now an immovable force. Indeed, by year's end, Sapp called them the game's best defensive line, and he went so far as to say they will dominate the Patriots' offensive line.

"No, no, I didn't expect that," said Jenkins, told of Sapp's comment. "That surprised me. When he said that, I was like, `Wow. It's nice to get that respect.' But the truth is, we have a lot of work to do. We're here, but we're not great yet."

To hear Jenkins say that, you know he has been listening to Trgovac, because the defensive coordinator has spent hours upon hours talking to the ex-Maryland standout.

"He's grown up tremendously," said Trgovac. "He still has some maturing to do, but he's been excellent in that regard. He was so young when he came into the league, he's only 24 now. Everyone expects him to be this big, mature guy, but he's really just a young kid at heart. He's just big.

"I told him, when you look at you, guys like you don't grow on trees. You could take nine guys who look like him on the first round [of the draft] and only two will work out because they're so hard to find. Look at how many D-linemen get drafted in the first two rounds and how many of them are a bust. Because everyone needs them."

As Trgovac talked, Sapp again was making his way through the crowd, but fewer people were taking notice. The man up on podium No. 10 had their attention, which is perhaps the new order in the NFL.

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