Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins tackles South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw in The Swamp on Oct. 20, 2012 in Gainesville. (Photo by Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

Of the Gator football team’s four juniors gone pro, outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins has received his fair share of criticism.

And it’s warranted.

Jenkins, who has hired an agent, missed four games (including the Sugar Bowl) due to thumb, hamstring and foot injuries. The last setback required surgery and may leave him less than 100 percent for the NFL Combine. His 2012 season left the coaching staff, and Gator fans, convinced that they’d have him back in 2013.

But if there’s one thing sports have shown us through decades of unsuspecting heroes and zeroes, it’s that the fate of a player — whether that’s a bronze bust, a draft-day bust or somewhere in between — isn’t truly known by anyone.

Injury, opportunity, coaching, character, desire are just a few ambiguous factors that can define a career. The measurables, like 40-yard dash times, can tell us how quickly a player can get to the ball but not how willing a player is to tackle once he gets there. As Florida head coach Will Muschamp has said since arriving in Gainesville, tackling is a matter of “want-to” and mentioned that as something the Gators struggled with in his first year.

Those types of qualities can’t be quantified and are the chief reasons why ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s mock drafts are mocked at. On Wednesday, Kiper projected defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd to go in the first round (to San Francisco with the 30th pick), safety Matt Elam to go in the early- to mid-second round and tight end Jordan Reed to be taken as high as the second round.

As for the 6-foot, 237-pound Jenkins? Kiper believes he could go as early as the third round and as late as the fifth.

The media and the fans are qualified to assess a player’s decision to turn pro because we’ve all seen the consequences of that decision play out year after year from players across the nation. And one doesn’t have to flip back through too many pages in history before seeing the last time four Gators left early for the NFL. That was in 2007 when defensive end Jarvis Moss, cornerback Ryan Smith, linebacker Brandon Siler and safety Reggie Nelson chose to go.

Of the quartet, Moss and Smith are out of the league while Siler — who fell to the seventh round — has mostly been a backup in San Diego and now Kansas City. Nelson is the lone Gator still thriving as a starter in Cincinnati.

But no matter how unlikely it seems, Jenkins will attempt to justify his jump. He can take comfort in flipping back a little further in history when teams overlooked linebackers like Adalius Thomas, who fell to the sixth round before Baltimore picked him in 2000, and Zach Thomas, who dropped to the fifth round before Miami took him in 1996.

Still, those are lofty comparisons for Jenkins, who capped his UF career with just 29 tackles, two sacks and one interception in his final year.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean Jenkins can’t have a prosperous career in the NFL. It may just come down to his “want-to.”

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