He was just the 28th-rated safety according to Scout.com, and he signed in a class that included the No. 3 cornerback in the country in Cleveland Glenville’s Jamario O’Neal. A year prior, the Buckeyes signed three defensive backs from Ohio who were rated in the top 15 at their positions – the nation’s No. 1 corner, Ted Ginn Jr., out of Glenville as well as Hamilton’s Brandon Underwood and Columbus native Sirjo Welch.
“When I was coming out, I had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t go to Ohio State, coming from Jersey,” Jenkins told BuckeyeSports.com. “Ohio has great high school football, and at that time Jamario O’Neal was in my class – he was one of the top corners in the nation. They also had Ted Ginn, who was one of the top corners in the nation.
“Everybody told me I wouldn’t play being a Jersey guy going to Ohio, that I’d pretty much ride the bench for four years, so I had a little bit of an attitude when I got there.”
That attitude helped Jenkins get on the field right away as a freshman, as he became the team’s No. 1 nickel back during fall camp and was a starter at corner his final three seasons on the way to winning the Thorpe Award in 2008. Ginn moved to wideout, Underwood transferred and both Welch and O’Neal ended up as safeties, while Jenkins became a first-round draft pick and one of the most decorated cornerbacks in OSU’s decorated cornerback history.
Watching along the way was a skinny kid from Jersey named Eli Apple. He also had big dreams, deciding early on that he wanted to be a U.S. Army All-American and Thorpe winner, and grew up wanting to don the scarlet and gray.
Naturally, the player he most wanted to be was the one wearing No. 2 for the Buckeyes who grew up 65 miles to the northeast in the Garden State.
“Of course it was Malcolm,” Apple said. “When I started really liking the Buckeyes, he was the guy, plus he was from Jersey just like me. I was watching everything he did trying to emulate him. He was somebody who always brought great energy out to the field, and he always played hard.”
Separated by eight years in recruiting classes, the two have become Ohio State’s Jersey Boys. Instead of pumping out hits like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the two Garden State natives have become stalwarts in the secondary for the Buckeyes.
But they each followed slightly different tracks to get to stardom at Ohio State. Jenkins was a factor from his arrival, starting the third game of his career and racking up 34 tackles as a true freshman.
Meanwhile, Apple’s first year was a struggle. He was one of the top-rated corners in the country coming out of Eastern High School but took a redshirt his first year, then battled illness. He didn’t start to come on until spring practice in 2014 and then became a starter in the fall, progressing to the point he became a freshman All-American and helped cover Heisman finalist Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl.
Now, he’s the unquestioned leader of cornerbacks’ coach Kerry Coombs’ room, just like Jenkins was a sophomore in 2006.
“Last year at this time, I was definitely fighting for a spot and I didn’t even know if I was really going to play or what I was going to do,” Apple said in the spring. "Now being a leader of the guys in the room, everybody is looking up at me. It’s a lot different for sure.”
With that, Apple paused for a second.
“And I like this role,” he added. “My confidence is through the roof right now. I feel real good with my game. I feel real good where I’m going right now.”
That confidence echoes the self belief that Jenkins had throughout his entire Ohio State career, as Jenkins was never afraid to speak his mind to the media or tell an opponent exactly what he thought on the way to All-America honors as a junior and senior.
Maybe it’s the Jersey in each of those players, but confidence doesn’t seem to be in short supply for either now. While Apple possesses a quieter, more reserved personality than Jenkins, the two have showed what harnessing the power of confidence can do at the cornerback position.
“I had to have a chip on my shoulder, and I’m sure Eli has the same chip on his shoulder,” Jenkins said. “It’s just something that you have to have when you come to Ohio State. I think that helps gives us a little bit of an edge as Jersey guys.”
Now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jenkins has returned close to home, and he’s met a number of people who knew Apple when he was growing up in Voorhees, which is an outlying suburb of the City of Brotherly Love.
Still a huge Ohio State fan and someone who attended the title game win vs. Oregon in Dallas, Jenkins also watched closely as Apple progressed throughout the season. This summer he hopes to help the younger prospect hone his skills even further.
“He’s a competitor, he’s tough mentally, and from everything I hear in the weight room and in practice, he’s out in front, he’s a leader,” Jenkins said. “Those are things that as a young player I was developing. Hopefully over the next month or two I can get a hold of him to talk.
“I know he’s reached out to me just picking my brain on some things, and really all I can give him is the same thing Mike Doss did for me when I was in school. He never told me anything about what to do in a game or how to make plays. All he told me was to watch some old practice film of Antoine Winfield, Shawn Springs, Ahmed Plummer, all those guys, and he showed me how they practiced and how they went about their business day in and day out and how it translated to the field. That changed my entire college career.”
Doss' advice worked to the point that Jenkins left Ohio State as another in a long line of standouts at the position, and it helped earn Jenkins the chance to have his jersey framed on the wall of the cornerbacks room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, an honor reserved for the program’s best at the position.
Apple could be the next to follow in those footsteps.
“It’s always been a goal of mine,” Apple said. “It’s been a goal of mine since I was in middle school coming to camp here. It’s something I always wanted to do, wanting to strive for and have been working for.”
Time will tell just how things will finish for Apple at Ohio State, but one thing can’t be argued – the Buckeyes’ Jersey Boys produced nothing but hits.