Khaleel Jenkins hasn’t had much time to return home to San Diego these past two years, but when the Cal Poly quarterback would make the trip south he was often reminded of his sacrifice — and that one day it would likely pay off.
Jenkins grew up a two-sport star in a family full of athletes, the middle child of three siblings. And while he never had to look far for encouragement, perhaps no relative understood his struggle — having to wait two years before earning significant playing time in college — better than his cousin, Deon Randall.
“I’d see him at family barbecues, and he told me the situation he was in,” said Randall, the all-time leading receiver in Yale University history, in a phone interview this week. “I told him, ‘Just keep plugging away. Never get your head down. Don’t get discouraged. Just keeping working hard and when your opportunity comes, you’ve got to make the most out of it.’
“I think that’s what he’s done.”
Not that it was always easy.
Jenkins arrived at Cal Poly having put up staggering numbers at Francis Parker High School, an elite college preparatory day school — 2,488 yards passing, 2,233 yards rushing, 531 yards receiving, 480 return yards, 208 tackles and 38 total touchdowns.
He had all the characteristics Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh looks for in a quarterback when he recruited him more than three years ago.
Jenkins possessed the size, speed and toughness required to sit in the driver’s seat of the Mustangs’ triple-option offense. His leadership qualities were off the charts, coupled with academic prowess that warranted recruiting interest from a handful of Ivy League schools.
Jenkins would make just one start as a true freshman and appear in six more games through his first two years at Cal Poly.
Now the wait is over.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Jenkins took the reins offensively this spring to help usher in the next era of Mustang football. The 15-practice spring schedule concludes at 9:30 a.m. Saturday when Cal Poly hosts its annual spring game inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
‘Ambition to get better’
In more ways than one, if it weren’t for Randall, there’s a chance Jenkins’ life would be on a different trajectory today.
Randall was a well-known football player who also played at Francis Parker High School, and he went on to become the all-time leading receiver at Yale — which included a seven-reception, 79-yard effort against Cal Poly in 2013 — but not before he put in a good word for his cousin with Francis Parker football coach John Morrison.
Jenkins never played a down of junior varsity football in high school. He thrived at wide receiver and defensive back as an underclassman, waiting for his opportunity to take over at quarterback his final two seasons.
“I think the thing that popped off to me immediately were his leadership skills,” Morrison said in a phone interview this week. “Even as a true freshman, he never had a problem — not in a bad way or an immature way — but making people around him accountable. Not so much for their performance, but more about their effort and their attitude.”
Morrison, who stepped down as head coach in 2014 after 18 seasons at Francis Parker, said Randall was a mentor for Jenkins who helped him develop mental toughness. One thing Morrison liked to emphasize with his players was “don’t count your touches, make your touches count.”
It was a message Jenkins likely carried with him through his first two seasons in San Luis Obispo as he piled up countless practices reps but rarely reaped the reward on Saturdays.
Though the seven-game career numbers don’t exactly jump off the page — 3-for-17 passing for 59 yards, 19 carries for 99 yards and one touchdown — there’s a consensus exciting things are in store with Jenkins under center.
“Our expectations are extremely high for Khaleel,” Walsh said. “I think the great thing is Khaleel has high expectations for himself.”
He’s been groomed by Brown, Cal Poly’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, and Graves, a second-team all-Big Sky Conference performer in 2016 who now serves as the Mustangs’ quarterbacks coach. Jenkins has absorbed the best traits of his predecessors and developed an expert-level understanding of the triple option attack.
As for the relationship with Graves, a former teammate who is now paid to teach and critique Jenkins on a daily basis, it’s been a seamless transition.
“He’s handled it very maturely,” Graves said. “It’s not something that on paper looks as if it’d be easy going from backing someone up to then playing for them, but he’s extremely coachable. The best part about it is he has a lot of ambition to get better.”
‘Poised in big-time situations’
While Cal Poly will be starting a new quarterback for the third consecutive season, he’ll be surrounded by a cast of experienced veterans.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better fullback tandem than All-American Joe Protheroe and fellow senior Jared Mohamed. Senior Kyle Lewis ranks among the most explosive players in the FCS, and senior Joey Kuperman returns to lead a talented offensive line.
The biggest question for Walsh is how consistently accurate Jenkins will be when the Mustangs choose to throw. Graves completed 63.4 percent of his 153 total pass attempts in 2016, and Walsh expects Jenkins to meet that standard.
It’s been his main focus this spring, knowing an efficient passing attack was a catalyst in Cal Poly’s FCS playoff berth last season.
“Really being able to just fire off my progression and just making everything quicker for myself pre-snap,” Jenkins said, “so that post-snap I know where I’m going with ball and it’s just really quick and confident.”
Walsh said the coaching staff will get a feel for Jenkins’ in-game strengths during the first two weeks of the regular season, when the Mustangs host Colgate and go to San Jose State. He also will be working with a third offensive coordinator in three years, now that assistant Jim Craft has taken on that role following the departures of Juston Wood and Saga Tuitele.
Morrison has seen firsthand what Jenkins is capable of when he has to adapt on the fly. He knows the coaching changes and two-year wait haven’t had a negative effect.
“I expect him to have great success,” Morrison said.
Randall, who will be in attendance for Saturday’s spring game, echoes that sentiment.
“He’s always been a leader in his own regard,” Randall said. “I expect him to be a leader on the field and poised in big-time situations.”
Khaleel Jenkins Profile
Hometown: San Diego (Francis Parker High School)
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 205 pounds
Quoteworthy: “Our expectations are extremely high for Khaleel,” Tim Walsh said. “I think the great thing is Khaleel has high expectations for himself.”
Cal Poly Football Spring Game
When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Format: Fans will see about 75 offensive plays along with some special teams plays. Scoring will be modified for the game.