Jelani Jenkins knew he would make it back to the University of Florida some day.
After leaving school a year early to pursue the NFL Draft, the Miami Dolphins linebacker knew he would finish his degree.
Three years later, Jenkins completed his undergraduate degree in applied physiology and kinesiology and walked across the stage at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for commencement on the same field where he played for the Gators.
“Graduation was big, man,” Jenkins said Thursday as the Dolphins wrapped up their first week of OTAs. “That was something that I’ll never forget. It’s long-lasting. It took a long time to do. It took a lot of hard work.”
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Now with the degree in hand, the 24-year-old pro is shifting his focus to putting in the hard work on the field this offseason.
Jenkins, a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, has started 25 games during the past two seasons, recording 181 tackles, defending four passes and forcing three fumbles. With three years of playing experience and two years of starting under his belt, the 6-foot, 243-pound linebacker heads into Year 4 full of confidence.
“Mentally, I feel like I’m a step further than being my fourth year into the league,” said Jenkins, who added he’s fully healthy after being hobbled by an ankle injury down the stretch last season. “Having a whole offseason not injured and not coming off a surgery and being able to really focus on getting strength, preparing better for the season, I feel good about where I’m at right now.”
Jenkins, however, won’t be doing it alone as the Dolphins aim to improve on last year’s 25th-place finish in total defense (376.2 yards per game), the third-worst in the AFC in 2015.
To his side is middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, a fourth-year pro who came to the Dolphins along with corner Byron Maxwell from the Philadelphia Eagles as part of a trade for Miami’s No. 8 pick in April’s draft. The status of fellow outside linebacker Koa Misi is up in the air after he was reportedly involved in a brawl outside a Fort Lauderdale nightclub last weekend.
Behind him is a secondary with Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones and cornerbacks in Maxwell and second-round draft pick Xavien Howard.
In front is a defensive line that includes veterans Mario Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Andre Branch and Cameron Wake — a quartet with a combined 222 sacks in their NFL careers.
“I feel like our defense does a good job right now,” first-year Dolphins head coach Adam Gase said. “You can see the veteran guys. We have a lot of veteran players, especially along that defensive line, that can grab a hold of what they’re doing. If guys are a little bit out of line, they can say what they need to say to get them going.”
Jenkins said he has made an effort to bond with Alonso both on and off the field. The two live close. When they’re not in the film room and studying game plans, they go out for the occasional meal or play a round of Call of Duty.
The friendship off the field is what Jenkins thinks will make the difference.
“We just hang out,” Jenkins said. “We have a lot of down time in this phase [of the offseason]. We have a chance to just kick it. It’s not just Kiko. … It’s all of them. I think we have a really tight group and I think that’s going to transfer to the field.”