JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State’s Eli Jenkins grew up cheering for Michael Vick, and like the NFL star, Jenkins is a quarterback who can run.
Last season, Jenkins rushed for 953 yards, finishing seventh in the Ohio Valley Conference. This year, he already has 247 yards, and again, he ranks seventh in the league.
For anyone who thinks Jenkins can’t throw, he has proven that wrong more than once in his two seasons as JSU's starting quarterback, as he ranks sixth in the league in passing.
But he hasn’t done it as well as he did Saturday in a 52-28 win over Murray State. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t fail to run, either, as he gained a career-high 149 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns.
The Ohio Valley Conference named him the league's player of the week.
"You just can't load the box on us, and that is what we have been working on,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. “He has really progressed as a passer, and Eli can really throw the ball and has an NFL arm to go along with his legs. That is a dangerous combination.”
Jenkins said passing performances such as Saturday’s comes with experience.
After all, he always has been able to throw. As a senior at Birmingham’s Parker High, he passed for more than 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns.
After sitting out the 2012 season as a redshirt, he completed 10 of 19 passes in the annual J-Day Game for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Last season, however, he didn’t always wait to find the right receiver.
“I have more confidence in myself and my arm,” he said. “Last year, I would look (for my receiver), and if it wasn’t open, I would take off and try to make a play running. Now, I’m going through my progressions. I look at my first progression, my second progression and my third progression.”
He still is willing to run, mentioning that he “keeps a clock” in his head and knows when it’s “time to go.”
Toward the end of last season, he seemed to strike a productive balance between running and passing. In the last four games, he attempted 61 passes and 50 rushes. He threw for at least 115 yards in each of those four contests and rushed for at least 97.
JSU averaged 38 points a game in that stretch and won three of four. In the one loss, a 35-24 NCAA FCS playoff loss at Eastern Washington, he hurt his knee just before halftime with the score tied 21-21.
This year, Jenkins has started all four games as eighth-ranked JSU (3-1) prepares to face Tennessee Martin (1-4) at home Saturday.
“You sometimes forget that he is just a redshirt sophomore and he's still a young guy and getting games under his belt,” Grass said. “He is getting more poise in the pocket and can be a pocket passer.
"He is not just a guy that when the play breaks down, he just throws the ball down the field. He can throw the deep ball really well and the short passes. All of this comes from experience of playing games, and he knows our offense inside-out and getting more comfortable with the football.”