Big Sky Conference

Idaho State’s Jenkins endures adversity during rise to stardom


After the upset of a generation, first-year Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie circled the locker room in Reno, congratulating each and every one of his Bengals individually after ISU’s win over Nevada.

As Phenicie approached his captain’s locker, he realized Mario Jenkins was crying.

“I said, ‘Man, are you ok?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been waiting five years for this, coach,’” Phencie said on Wednesday. “That in a nutshell tells you who Mario Jenkins is and how he wants this to be successful and how he wants this to move forward in a successful fashion.”

Through seemingly never-ending trials, Jenkins has persevered to reach a senior season filled with great expectation and, potentially, rich reward. The 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year burst onto the scene as a transcendent first-year starter on Idaho State’s revitalized squad, a team that went 8-4 and just missed the FCS playoffs.

Idaho State linebacker Mario Jenkins in 2016 at Montana/ by Jason Bacaj

Since that anomaly of team success, Jenkins has battled adversity both individually and through the struggles of his team. He’s played through and rehabbed from a broken hand and a broken foot. He blew out his ACL in fall camp leading up to the 2015 season, missing the entire season a year after his breakout campaign. This fall, Jenkins is wearing a bulky brace to support his throbbing right elbow.

After the 8-4 season — ISU’s best in 13 years — it’s been an uphill battle. Jenkins and All-Big Sky safety Taison Manu tore their ACLs during fall camp in 2015, lighting the fuse for a 2-9 season. Jenkins returned last year but internal turmoil that eventually led to Mike Kramer’s forced retirement last spring contributed to another 2-9 season.

Now Jenkins is leading the way for Idaho State’s renaissance. The Bengals scored 59 points in a 29-point victory over Portland State last week, ISU’s most against a Division I opponent since 1980. ISU’s fourth win this season matches the win totals of the last two years combined. Idaho State’s 30-28 win over Nevada was the program’s first over an FBS opponent since 1980.

“To stick with it and be such a good team player through the rough years we’ve had, he’s been nothing but the driving force in our room, motivating, taking the young kids along with him in the summer and making sure our linebacker crew is together,” ISU linebackers coach Roger Cooper said earlier in the week leading up to Cooper facing off against his alma mater.

Idaho State plays at Montana State for the first time since an instant classic at Bobcat Stadium during Jenkins’ redshirt freshman season. Earlier this week, STATS FCS added Jenkins’ name to the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in the FCS.

Thus far, Jenkins has been a man possessed in his final college season. The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder is averaging 10.9 tackles per game, one of the top marks in the country. He has six tackles for loss among his Big Sky Conference-best 87 total stops. He is averaging 10.8 tackles per game in league play.

“Really good football player, man,” MSU second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “He’s 6-1, 245, moves well, plays tackle to tackle, can play outside the box, good pass rusher, physical tackler, deserving candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award in my mind.”

Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer/by Nati Harnik

Much like Kramer recruited Cooper, the 2004 Big Sky MVP, to Montana State as an athlete who played running back in high school, the veteran Big Sky head coach recruited Jenkins, a running back from Nampa, Idaho, with an idea to play him at linebacker instead.

Jenkins earned first-team all-conference honors at tailback as a junior and senior at Columbia High. He rushed for 1,972 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, similar numbers to the ones put up by Cooper as a senior at South Kitsap High in Port Orchard, Washington in 1999. Jenkins rushed for 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns his senior season in 2012.

He redshirted in 2013 at Idaho State before instantly cracking the starting lineup. His first year playing next to senior Mitch Beckstead, Jenkins simply dominated.

The fast, physical Will linebacker led the Bengals with 120 tackles, ranking fifth in the Big Sky. He registered 10.5 tackles for loss, forced a fumble, recovered another and snared three interceptions.

The second-team All-Big Sky selection finished fourth in the voting for the Jerry Rice Award, the FCS’ honor for the country’s best freshman, piled up seven games with at least 10 tackles, including a season-high 16 in ISU’s second game against Utah State. In Idaho State’s 56-28 win over Southern Utah, Jenkins earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors by stacking up 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four tackles for loss and two interceptions.

Idaho State senior Mario Jenkins/ ISU athletics

“He really is a student of the game,” Cooper said. “He studies film and what he is really good at is understanding what his job is, but then also understanding when his gap is taken care of or somehow his gap gets closed, he can switch his mind to being a football player. He has cleaned up a ton of plays throughout his career just by understanding where he fits and understanding when his job is taken care of. He can just be Mario and get to the ball. He’s always been like that.”

One of Jenkins’ 10-tackle performances came in ISU’s 44-39 loss at No. 12 Montana State. The Bengals bounced back the final week of the regular season to post a 46-28 win over rival Weber State to secure their sixth league victory. But ISU did not make the playoffs that season despite its eight victories.

That frigid November afternoon three years ago, MSU railed from a 30-23 halftime deficit to score two third quarter and one fourth quarter touchdowns to take the lead and never look back. Jake Bleskin shook off two interceptiosn to Beckstead to throw for 301 yards and two touchdowns while Chad Newell had the first in a string of memorable performances with a 110-yard performance on a seven-degree day.

“I remember it was freezing cold,” Jenkins said with a chuckle. “It was a back and forth game for both of us. It was touchdown after touchdown, defensive stop after defensive stop. It was unreal. It was one of those college Saturday experiences every college player wants to experience. They have great fans, great support and it’s a great stadium.”

Internally and externally, expectations for Jenkins’ sophomore year were sky high. Jenkins surely would’ve challenged Sac State’s Darnell Sankey, North Dakota’s Will Ratelle, Southern Utah’s Matt Holley and the Montana pair of Jeremiah Kose and Kendrick Van Ackeren for alpha dog status among BSC inside linebackers.

But the pop Jenkins felt in his knee that August ended that season in an instant and could’ve derailed his career. Jenkins refused to be deterred, instead rehabbing so hard, he was running at full speed in three and a half months on a treadmill

Idaho State senior linebacker Mario Jenkins/ by Brooks Nuanez

“It opened my eyes when I did do it because it made me realize how much I love and cherish the sport,” Jenkins said at the Big Sky kickoff media conference in Park City, Utah in July. “I know some guys who have full knee reconstruction who don’t come back at all, who don’t come back full strength or who come back worse. My coaches thought I might not come back to where I was at before. Me, I’m determined, I want to prove you wrong, I want to come back better than I was, better than ever. I knew the kind of work I wanted to put in and had to put in.”

One of the main factors to Jenkins’ rapid recovery came in the form of nutrition. He disciplined himself to ditch the fast food and mess hall meals that become the norm for college students, even athletes. Instead, he meal preps every Sunday, giving himself a healthy bulk of substance made up largely of proteins like grilled chicken and fish, whole grains like rice and plenty of vegetables.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t still go to McDonald’s,” Jenkins said with a laugh in July. “You have to enjoy some of the blessings in life.”

After three All-Big Sky seasons and earning two Big Sky championship rings at Montana State, Cooper saw his career hindered and ultimately end because of a fractured wrist. Cooper has been able to help Jenkins navigate the mental hurdles that come with missing time or recovering.

“When I tore my ACL, I was with him all the time,” Jenkins said. “That’s when I learned so much about the film and was able to incorporate that into the field.

“He’s a great person to talk to about being hurt. He would always say, ‘It’s just another speed bump in the road. You just have to get over it. It’s small and you will come back even stronger.’ He was always there to uplift me and give me advice.”

Idaho State senior linebacker Mario Jenkins/ by Brooks Nuanez

Upon his full health, Jenkins fully assumed the role as Idaho State’s leader. Last summer, Jenkins led the way with keeping his fellow linebackers in Pocatello over the summer in order to train. The summer leading up to this season, Phenicie said more than 60 Bengals total stayed around, up from what he estimated to be less than 20 on average during Kramer’s six-year tenure, a period that netted only 18 victories.

NFL scouts held up Jenkins (literally) for about half an hour on Wednesday before his interview with Skyline Sports for this story. The two-time second-team all-conference selection will have to run well on his pro day next spring to rise his stock. As of now, he is rated somewhere between the 50th and 60th best inside linebacker in next year’s draft.

In an ironic way, the struggles Jenkins has gone through are the key factors in his ascension to pro prospect. Idaho State will look to continue it’s rise at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday while Jenkins’ resurgence is already highlighted by striking perseverance.

“I’m glad I came here, I’m glad I tore (my knee) because I never worked my hips, I never worked my core and I never realized how much I loved this sport until I did that,” Jenkins said. “It can be taken away each play no matter what. It really opened my eyes and made me a better player in general because I saw the game from a different perspective watching from the sidelines. From a player perspective, it made me realize I could lose this chance at any time and I had already almost lost it.

“My mentality toward the sport now, I’m not afraid to do anything because I know I’m stronger than ever before.”

Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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