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Monday, August 28
Updated: September 2, 12:33 PM ET
Jenkins looks to put Cats back on the map

By David Albright

TUCSON, Ariz. - He used to be a household name. The way you would expect anyone with the nickname "OJ" to be. You couldn't turn on a TV set without seeing highlights of his spectacular plays.

Ortege Jenkins
The last time the Cats were in Seattle, Ortege Jenkins made "The Leap by the Lake."
Lately, it seems like Ortege Jenkins has been hiding inside the witness-protection program known as Pac-10 football. But the Arizona quarterback enters his senior season thinking he can still turn some heads and get his school back in the national spotlight.

"People say we can't win and that's good," Jenkins said. "We're going to be the guys out headhunting and nobody's going to be headhunting for us. It takes a lot of pressure off. People might look past us and that's an advantage too."

Truth be told, they might forget Arizona is on the schedule.

A quick look at the last 23 months reveals the disturbing trend that coach Dick Tomey and the Wildcats are trying to reverse.

  • 1998 season: The Flip. Jenkins produced an ESPY-nominated performance when he somersaulted over three defenders into the Washington end zone with :04 left to give Arizona a 31-28 win in Seattle. The victory moved Arizona to 5-0 on the season on its way to a 12-1 finish with a No. 4 national ranking following a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

  • 1999 season: The Flop. Preseason No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll (No. 4 AP), the Wildcats were smoked 41-7 in the Pigskin Classic at Penn State and never fully recovered. Arizona lost its final three games last year to finish 6-6 -- including 3-5 and sixth in the Pac-10.

    The last time a preseason top-five selection finished outside the top 25 was 1994 when Notre Dame went from No. 2 to the current state of oblivion that still permeates South Bend.

    "We've been living with this feeling of emptiness since last year and we want to get rid of it," Tomey said. "We haven't felt good about ourselves for a long time and we really want to."

  • 2000 season forecast: Forgotten. All you need to know about how far Arizona football has fallen on the national radar is one publication ranked the Wildcats behind Northern Illinois -- a program among the bottom 10 in the '90s -- in its season preview. Enough said.

    Ortege Jenkins looks forward to being "the man" in Arizona this year. He logged a lot of minutes as a freshman and knows how to play every down. The question with him has always been his health. The Arizona coaching staff believes he's ready to go; he lost 20 pounds in the offseason and spent the summer working with passing guru Homer Smith; he should be primed to play. Jenkins has the ability to be the premier quarterback in the conference; the only other Pac-10 quarterback with as much experience is Marques Tuiasosopo in Washington. The expectation for Jenkins will be to repeat the stunning success he had his freshman year and there's no reason why he can't.

    Playing so often at night because of the heat, the Wildcats' talented squad doesn't get a big national audience. Defensive lineman Joe Tafoya could be an All-America candidate; Brandon Manumaleuna is a big, quick, tight end with soft hands; and they've got Bruce Wiggins, arguably the best center on the west coast. All four of those guys -- including, if not especially, Jenkins -- are experienced seniors on a mission to get the program's respectability back.

    Or is it? Jenkins doesn't think so and he isn't ready to accept that his senior season is over before it starts.

    "If you guys don't get it together you could come out of the gate ..."

    "Go ahead and say it," Jenkins interjected.


    "Go ahead and say it. I don't mind if you say it. But we could go 4-1," Jenkins said with confidence.

    "But you have to admit going into this season ..."

    "Why not take a tough schedule?" Jenkins asked. "As a competitor you want to be challenged. We understand we have a lot of tough games ahead of us."

    Arizona opens the season Saturday at Utah (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2), followed by a visit from No. 16 Ohio State. And the first two Pac-10 games are at defending champ Stanford and at preseason favorite and No. 13-ranked USC.

    If the Wildcats have any chance of improving their consensus selection as the eighth-best team in the conference, Jenkins will have to take what's arguably a mini-rebuilding project and make it jell quickly.

    Gone are NFL draft selections Trung Canidate (Arizona's all-time leading rusher) and Dennis Northcutt (UA's all-time leading receiver) -- part of the reason that Arizona's offense set a Pac-10 record with 5,663 yards last season.

    The numerous obstacles that lie ahead don't seem to bother the outspoken senior.

    "You can't dwell on (last) season," Jenkins said. "Nobody talks about a season after it's over. You talk about the new season and what have you done for me lately?

    "The good thing about this year is it's more team oriented and there isn't a lot of hype on certain players. There's not a focus on one guy. We're a balanced team and that's why we're going to win games."

    Balance is nice, but talent wins games and Arizona doesn't have a lot of the proven offensive variety outside of Jenkins. What the Long Beach, Calif., product does have going for him is time.

    We're going to be the guys out headhunting and nobody's going to be headhunting for us. It takes a lot of pressure off. People might look past us and that's an advantage too.
    Ortege Jenkins

    That's because Keith Smith, the other half of the two-headed quarterback monster that roamed around Tucson for the last three seasons, has graduated. With Smith no longer in the picture, Jenkins doesn't have to look over his shoulder to see if the hook is waiting from Tomey or offensive coordinator Dino Babers.

    "The thing that really gets you with the two-headed monster is your leadership," Babers said. "It's like going toward two generals. When you're 12-1 nobody talks about it. But when you're 6-6, it's all over the papers.

    "Now he's the only general."

    In order to be an effective leader, Jenkins needs to get back to the form he displayed in 1997 when he replaced an injured Smith and lead Arizona to a 5-2 record over the final seven regular-season games while throwing a Pac-10 freshman record 19 touchdowns.

    To that end, Jenkins spent part of the last two summers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., working with his offensive coordinator from that freshman season, the since-retired Homer Smith.

    "Going back there was a mental thing," Jenkins said. "It gets me away from my family and my friends and it's football all day and all night."

    The benefit last season after a trip to Homer's boot camp was an improvement in completion percentage from 49.3 to a Pac-10 best 60.3 and in efficiency rating from 115.1 to 144.7. It didn't equate to victories but based on those numbers, who could argue a return visit this summer?

    Fifteen days in Alabama produced a conditioning and weight-loss benefit in the ultra-humid conditions as Jenkins left Tucson at 234 pounds and returned at 213.

    To get back into playing shape, he started each day at 8 a.m. by throwing balls at a tire. "You need a tire because it tells you whether you put it right on the money," Smith said. "The tire doesn't lie. And the tire competes with you. OJ loved that.

    "He'd get going and miss and fume and pout. But pretty soon he's start hitting and he'd say, 'I'm in the zone. I'm in the zone.'"

    From the tire drills it was on to Tuscaloosa Academy at 10:30 a.m. to work on decision-making against real players. Smith calls it "setting up pictures.

    "You can take defenders and offenders out in front of a quarterback and set up pictures where a receiver is either open or not open -- the decisions that you have to make in different kinds of plays."

    After lunch, Jenkins hit the weight room before a 3:30 p.m. throwing session with players from Stillman College. After dinner, Smith and his student worked on pass-protection and clock-drive calls.

    "He had zero social life," Smith said. "He ate three meals away from my table during the two weeks and I was with him for two of the three and he was with a reporter for the other -- he had zero outside life."

    With the focus solely on football, Smith saw steady improvement by Jenkins over the two weeks. And although he's clearly biased, the coach sees a bright future for what likely will be his final quarterback project.

    "OJ is a great athlete and he's not afraid of other great athletes," Smith said. "He will not play against anyone whom he will need to back away from -- no linebacker, no one. There's nothing that OJ cannot do."

    His current coach echoes that sentiment.

    "I have more confidence in him than he has in himself because I've seen him grow and develop," Tomey said. "There's a certain amount of belief that our guys have that OJ can take them where they want to go because he's done that."

    For his part, Jenkins' expectations may exceed everyone else's.

    "I want to prove that I can be the quarterback that can bounce back from the season we had and lead this team to victory," he said. "My biggest dream is to be the quarterback on the team that was the best team in school history or the best team in the country -- that winning feeling at the end of the season."

    Saturday night in Utah is the first -- but maybe final -- chance for Jenkins to get back to that place where everybody knows his name.

    David Albright is a senior editor at

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