Senior DL primed to become Michigan’s next defensive star

Published Aug. 28, 2023, 9:06 a.m.
By Ryan Zuke |
ANN ARBOR – The Kris Jenkins hype train picked up steam during Michigan’s spring practices and hasn’t slowed down during preseason camp.
Last season, the Wolverines adopted a ‘no-star defense’ mentality after defensive back Daxton Hill and edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were all selected within the first picks of the 2022 NFL draft.
With Michigan returning nine players with starting experience from last year’s top-five defense, there’s potential for another star to emerge. No player has generated more buzz this preseason than Jenkins, a 2022 all-Big Ten honorable mention.
“I don’t think I’m going to get a better pass rusher on the interior all year than Kris Jenkins,” Michigan starting right guard Zak Zinter said earlier this month.
“He’s got the bull (rush), he’s got the speed, the power, he’s got the twitchiness. It’s been tough blocking Kris this camp.”
Jenkins had the potential to be a day two pick in April if he declared for the 2022 NFL draft, but the defensive tackle decided to return for his senior season. He helped stymie opponents’ rushing attack in 2022, leading all FBS interior linemen with 31 run stops.
His pass rush, however, didn’t pop like his play against the run. He recorded just two sacks and didn’t have any in 14 games (four starts) as a sophomore. Improving his ability to get to the quarterback was Jenkins’ central focus during the offseason, and his work appears to have paid off. Although Michigan practices are closed to media, his teammates and coaches say they have noticed a vast improvement.
“Kris is playing really, really well right now,” defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said on Aug. 10. “Kris has been obsessed with being better as a pass rusher since the day he stepped back here on campus. It’s showing up. He’s moving really well. He’s still the same player against the run with 20 extra pounds. Watching him battle with Zinter and (starting left guard) Trevor Keegan, those are really fun, elite matchups that’s really the best on best in college football. It’s great every day to be able to go against those guys and for Kris to be able to iron his game against players like that. I expect big things from him this year.”
Minter isn’t the only one anticipating a stellar season from the former three-star prospect out of Good Counsel High in Maryland. Multiple draft experts have projected Jenkins to be a first-round pick in 2024, while The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman placed him No. 6 on his annual list of most athletic “freaks” in college football.
“People inside the Michigan program think he’s now ready to take a huge step forward as an impact guy,” Feldman wrote. “He’s up to 307 pounds and is more powerful and explosive than ever. He did 32 reps of 225 on the bench and did 760 pounds on the combo twist. Only last year’s top Freak, Mazi Smith, some 30 pounds heavier, did more slinging around 800 pounds.
“Jenkins recently did a Turkish get-up with a 170-pound dumbbell — the heaviest (Michigan strength and conditioning coach) Ben Herbert has ever witnessed. Jenkins does pull-ups with a 100-pound weight strapped to his waist. He also moves incredibly well for being a 300-plus pounder, running a 7.16 3-cone, a 4.33 shuttle, broad-jumping 9-8 and vertical-jumping 34 inches.
“Jenkins’ shuttle and 3-cone times are both almost two-tenths of a second faster than the quickest interior defensive lineman did at this year’s NFL combine. His broad jump would be tied for the best. His vertical jump would be second-best, and only Smith topped his number on the bench press.”
With Michigan set to open the season against East Carolina on Saturday, Jenkins will get a chance to translate his improved strength and athleticism into production on the field.
He understands he hasn’t accomplished anything yet in 2023 but knows he’s a much different player than when he stepped on campus as a 239-pound defensive end recruit. Jenkins played at about 285 pounds last season and is now up to 305.
“I feel pretty good, honestly,” Jenkins said. “Right now I’m still sitting at 305. I’ve comfortably been maintaining through camp. That’s been the biggest goal.
“Honestly, in the beginning, I felt fat but now I’ve been feeling more explosive now that I’m playing with it (added weight) consistently. I definitely feel you more in touch with my body, just trying to keep that up. If I could definitely add a couple more pounds as the season goes on, I definitely will. But I feel like I’m moving pretty good.”
Sixth-year linebacker Michael Barrett said “freak” is an applicable superlative to describe Jenkins. The always-jovial defensive lineman was credited by head coach Jim Harbaugh this preseason as the “poster person” for one of his favorite sayings, “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
“Just the way he plays, man, just the flip of a switch whenever we hit the field,” Barrett said. “Just his athletic ability, the way he goes and handles his business on and off the field. The word speaks for itself, man. He’s just a freak athlete. He could do so much. To be that big, it’s a scary sight.”
Jenkins been tasked with anchoring Michigan’s defensive line this season, but he also will be relied on to be a vocal leader. The 6-foot-3 senior was one of six players named a captain last week.
“Last year, I just wanted to feel me more and lead by example because I didn’t feel like I was in the position to really speak up as much,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I really had that much stock to be able to do so. Now with the guys really just coming up and asking me for advice, asking me for my input, definitely kind of changed my perspective and definitely got me to speak up more and working on actually being more vocal.”

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