From backup running back to starting quarterback, Lawrence High football junior Tyrone Jenkins has had quite the journey, complete with unexpected turns, up the depth-chart ladder this fall.
The Lions began the season with senior Charles Jackson as their primary back. When Jackson went down with a season-ending left leg injury Sept. 23, Jenkins was there to take over. With a new primary option at halfback, LHS won its next three games.
Then came another blow to Lawrence’s backfield. Starting quarterback Brad Strauss hurt his left ankle Oct. 21. He would be unavailable for the Lions’ regular-season finale at Free State. The same was true for second-string QB Austin Mater-Kimball (knee) and third-stringer Drake Hofer (concussion).
Enter Jenkins. All the running back-turned-quarterback did was account for 216 yards of total offense and two touchdowns as he led Lawrence to a 20-0 victory and a spot in the playoffs.
Every time LHS coach Dirk Wedd and his staff have needed Jenkins, he has delivered.
“They just ask me to fill roles, and anything that can lead our team to a victory and help out, I’ll do,” Jenkins said.
Wedd acknowledged it has been a wild ride for the Lions back, and though the coach never would’ve envisioned a scenario in which Jenkins was the team’s signal-caller, Wedd thought the junior would be a key part of the team’s success.
Once Jenkins stepped in as a QB, primarily using the wildcat approach, the coach found out just how right he was.
“We didn’t really miss a beat,” Wedd said of Lawrence’s 20-point win over FSHS, in which Jenkins carried the ball 37 times and threw it four.
The LHS coach knew Jenkins could move the ball on the ground, making him similar to the team’s former starting QB.
“He’s not as fast as Strauss, but he runs north and south really well, and he’s a load,” Wedd said, referring to Jenkins’ rock-solid 6-foot, 190-pound frame.
To make sure the running back could make quarterback plays, too, the LHS staff worked with him in the days leading up to his varsity QB debut and found the passes with which he would be most comfortable. As Wedd joked, “He’s not John Elway or anything,” but Jenkins did show a penchant for the deep ball and was able to throw it with a tight spin and some touch.
Everyone at Free State Stadium saw that for themselves this past Friday, when Jenkins connected with wide receiver Erick Mayo for a long bomb that resulted in a 68-yard TD.
“It felt pretty good,” Jenkins said of the play, “because Mayo’s a really fast kid, and you get the ball in front of him, there’s no doubts that he’s gonna catch it.”
Though he wasn’t called on much to make plays with his arm, Jenkins said the coaches told him not to be worried about mistakes or drops and to use any miscues he encountered as a learning opportunity.
“I was pretty comfortable, because during practices they (coaches) just told me to keep my head up and just be positive,” he said
Not that anyone needed to tell Jenkins that. Positive could be his middle name. LHS senior tackle Sean Thomas said Jenkins had the perfect personality to transition from running back to quarterback.
“He’s goofy,” Thomas said. “He’s funny and he really adapts to whatever kind of position they put him in.”
Bringing a little silliness to the huddle was important, Thomas said, because Jenkins didn’t allow his teammates to get overly worked up or stressed out.
“He keeps everybody on the field really comfortable and just keeps us all really mellow and level-headed,” the senior lineman said.
Jenkins doesn’t mind letting his goofier side out, because he feels at ease on the gridiron and he wants his teammates to be just as loose. With the cold and rain awaiting the Lions outside at practice Wednesday afternoon, he knew he would bring his repertoire of jokes to the field to get their minds off the dreadful weather.
“When people are down, I say something funny to get them up or get them ready to play,” he said.
The running back will need to be ready himself, with the possibility of playing running back or quarterback against Olathe South (8-1) in a first-round playoff game at 7 tonight at Olathe District Activities Center. Wedd said Hofer has been cleared to play and Strauss is “day-to-day” and hasn’t been ruled out for the playoff game. That gives LHS (6-3) the option of using Jenkins or Hofer, maybe even Strauss — Wedd didn’t want to disclose who would play quarterback — as it tries to knock off O-South, the Sunflower League champion.
Jenkins ranked himself at the bottom of that trio in QB ability, but he thinks any of them will be able to help Lawrence get back to more passing, which was commonplace with Strauss healthy.
“I’m pretty confident that we can throw the ball a little bit more,” Jenkins said of the LHS approach this week.
Wedd knows Jenkins well. The junior’s older brother, Tyrae, also was a Lions running back who finished with close to 1,000 rushing yards in his senior season two years ago. Because the younger Jenkins brother was familiar with the program, Wedd said, it made him a natural fit.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Jenkins has been a team-first guy through this wacky year of changes.
“He doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body,” Wedd said. “That helps when you’re doing something like we were doing last week, trying to get him to play a position he wasn’t really familiar with.”
Regardless of where Jenkins lines up tonight, it will be something new for the Falcons’ eyes.
Said Thomas: “If you watch film on us from the beginning of the season and watch us last week, you’re looking at a completely different team.”
If Jenkins has his way, the Lions will be laughing and loose as they try to pull off another big victory.
Whether Jenkins is at running back or QB won’t matter, Wedd said.
“He’s proven he can lead a football team.”