Mike Jenkins has traveled a long, winding road that at times seemed to have no ending.
When the cornerback signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaners befre 2014 season, Jenkins thought he had reached his destination.
He would be playing at Raymond James Stadium, where he earned first team All-American honors at South Florida. His family and friends who saw him shine at Southeast High could see him perform his magic again.
It didn't happen.
Jenkins tore his pectoral muscle in the Bucs' first game last season and never took the field again.
He slid down the depth charts before this season, and there was speculation he would not be on the roster, especially after he didn't suit up the first two games because of a hamstring injury.
But he kept working,
and perhaps a new Jenkins, at the age of 30, emerged after sitting out last season.
"I got a chance to study the game from a different perspective and get a different point of view," Jenkins said. "You can sit and actually watch a game, and that was a great learning experience for me. You have an opportunity to learn a lot more when you are sitting."
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith has had a special liking to Jenkins and praised his knowledge of the game, particularly in how Tampa Bay likes to run its defensive scheme.
Smith said he believed coming back home would spark Jenkins to the form he showed when he was first-round draft pick in 2008 and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2009.
Jenkins is scheduled for his first start for the Bucs at home on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers after getting significant playing time last week against Houston.
Alterraun Verner, the Bucs' high-priced cornerback, has been benched. Johnthan Banks is hurt, but Smith says Jenkins was going to play a lot regardless. Tim Jennings will start at the other corner.
Jenkins played 56 snaps last week to 29 for Verner, and Jennings had 85. The Bucs will likely go into the game with only three active cornerbacks against quarterback Cam Newton, who likes to run and play physical.
"Mike would have been called on anyway. It doesn't have much to do with whether Johnthan will be ready to go this week," Smith said. "What see from Mike, he's a competitor, has great quickness and speed. He's aggressive, good things you are looking for in a corner. Injuries have held him back a little bit."
Smith brought Jennings here from Chicago after the Bears cut him during the offseason. The coach says he is just looking for the right pieces. He wants corners who are physical and can create turnovers. Verner hasn't done that, and Jenkins has had some success in the preseason and looked aggressive against Houston.
Smith says things change from week to week and if a player is getting less playing time it's not hard figure out why.
"You have to go with your best option, as a coach staff, the best option we feel like we can get to do whatever we want to do that game," Smith said. "As a player, if you are getting less reps you're not going to be excited about that, but what you do is stay ready and normally if you deserve to play you'll get another opportunity to play."
Jenkins had a reputation of being a very physical player at Southeast and at USF. In 2013, he started 15 games for the Oakland Raiders and had 75 tackles and two interceptions.
During his five years with the Dallas Cowboys, Jenkins came under some criticism, and then there was an alleged contract dispute with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
But a year away from the game has energized Jenkins. He is excited about playing before the home folks and perhaps get that second big contract.
"It was definitely hard, getting up every morning to just do rehab and not really having anything to look forward to on Sunday," Jenkins said. "I saw the guys every day and did everything I could to motivate them and get into the spirit. It gave me a lot of respect for the game."
Verner said he was never told why he was benched, but Smith goes back to his you watch the tape answer, and it appears Jenkins and Jennings bring him what he wants.
"I like what I've seen from them (Jenkins and Jennings)" Smith said. "As you see time increase or decrease on film study, video study and what we've seen in practice and who we think gives us the best opportunity to have success."
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.