MERIDEN, CT. - Two hats - one University of Georgia red and one University of Florida blue - sat on the lectern in front of big Johnathan Jenkins Saturday afternoon inside the Maloney High School cafeteria.
Jenkins cleared his throat and gathered his thoughts before handing the Florida cap to a young boy in an audience of about 70 family members and friends.
Rodney Garner and head coach Mark Richt, the two-time SEC Coach of the Year who visited Meriden on Jan. 7.
"When I met coach Richt, for some reason we just vibed," said Jenkins, a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American who garnered strong interest from most major Division I football programs in the nation. "He's one of those guys that you can give your all to. I felt like if it was the fourth quarter, I could look at the sideline, look at that man and can give my all for that guy."
At Georgia, Jenkins joins a "dream team" recruiting class that is ranked in the Top 6 nationally by most rating services. Georgia finished 6-7 in the fall, which was Richt's first losing season.
Reached by telephone Saturday, Richt said Jenkins was the 26th and last player to sign with the Bulldogs.
"I'm kind of speechless," Richt said. "This guy is exactly what we need to really make this 3-4 (defense) go. John is the cherry on top (of the recruiting class). That's the biggest cherry I've seen on top of an awesome class that we have. First of all, John's an awesome kid. He's just got a great personality. He's a hard worker and has a great spirit about him.
"He's going to show up to work every day with a smile on his face ready to go. For a guy that big to be a high-energy guy, it's hard to find. His attitude is going to be very contagious on this defense, on the team and even our fans. Everyone is going to love this kid. He's a big, massive guy who can play the center of our 3-4 defense. This is the first year we had to recruit a guy like him. To get a player who I think is the No. 1 nose in America is awesome."
Jenkins , 21, made official visits to all four schools on his short list. He gave Oklahoma State an oral commitment in November, but he decided to keep his recruitment open because his family did not get the chance to meet with Cowboys' coaches.
Jenkins was introduced Saturday by Maloney football coach Bob Zito and Tyrone Abrahams, his former defensive line coach at the high school.
"This is a great day for Meriden and the state of Connecticut," Abrahams said. "John's road to where he's heading was filled with a lot of valleys. Sometimes when you're down in that valley you have to crawl out...There were a lot of times John had to crawl out on his hands and knees to get to where he is now. He left Maloney with a lot of doubters, but he had a great support base...John has touched a lot of people in this community and we're very proud of him."
Jenkins graduated from Maloney in 2009 and played mostly fullback for the Spartans, who lost to New Canaan in the CIAC Class MM state final in his sophomore season. Zito said Jenkins high school career was stalled by academic issues and injuries.
"We're very happy with the way John has progressed," Zito said. "John has made some great decisions the last couple years. Today he's going to make another decision, probably the biggest decision of his life other than walking down the aisle to the altar. It's going to be an impact decision for him. John has put the time in and has really developed not only into a great football player but a great human being."
Following high school, Jenkins landed at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College last year after head coach Steve Campbell saw his highlight tape. This past fall, in his second season in Mississippi, Jenkins finished with 41 tackles and two sacks. The Bulldogs concluded their season 10-2 overall and ranked No. 3 in the final NJCAA poll.
"It let me find myself," Jenkins said of his JUCO experience. "It taught me how to be responsible, how to pay attention more and how to do right among others. It taught me the simple things like being on time, working hard and never giving up. I'm glad I went there. It taught me the game and how to find myself."
Jenkins expects to earn an associate's degree in general studies from MGCC in May. He said he looks forward to joining Georgia.
"I told the coaching staff I want to graduate," he said. "The (National Football) League is going to be there if I'm blessed enough to go to the League. I'm going to stay focused and work hard toward the League, but I told them I want to graduate. I also told coach Richt that if I decide to go to Georgia I'm going to work hard. When I get down to Georgia I'm not going to change myself. I'm going to be humble. I'm going to work hard toward my degree and play good on the football team."
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