Erik Jenkins Helps USF Track Become Nationally-Ranked Team

Photo Credit: University of South Florida athletics

by Tim Casey - MileSplit Recruiting Reporter

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Erik Jenkins has strong ties to Western Kentucky University. He competed in the long jump and sprints there in the 1990s. And he coached at the school for nearly two decades, including as head coach for 11 seasons.

Still, when Western Kentucky cut its track budget by 50-percent a few years ago, Jenkins considered leaving a college that meant so much to him. He wasn't going to depart for any job, but when the University of South Florida offered him the head coaching position in 2019, Jenkins accepted the offer.

Although USF hadn't had much success, Jenkins was confident he could turn around the program thanks to the school's location in a recruiting hotbed, the area's ideal weather and the administration's commitment to the athletics department. 

This year, the USF men have broken through, winning the American Athletic Conference indoor title for the first time in program history. The Bulls won six events and scored 156 points, 50.5 points more than second-place Charlotte.

This weekend, USF is competing in the AAC outdoor meet in San Antonio, where they will be the favorite. The Bulls are ranked 13th in the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll. They are the only ranked school besides No. 11 Northern Arizona that is in a league outside of the five major conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) that dominate college athletics.

"I see a lot of things we need to improve upon," Jenkins said. "But for a young program like ours and for what we're trying to establish here at the University of South Florida, I feel like we are finally starting to make some strides into the type of program we want to become."

Jenkins arrived at USF with a stellar resume. During his 11 years as Western Kentucky's head coach, the Hilltoppers won 30 Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA titles, while Jenkins won the league's coach of the year award 21 times.

When USF dismissed its previous coaches, Warren Bye and Dena Reif, athletics director Michael Kelly turned to Jenkins, who grew up in Quincy, Florida, about 300 miles northwest of USF's campus. During the interview process, Jenkins was impressed with Kelly, as well as USF leadership's commitment to track.

"I'd been at Western Kentucky for a long time," Jenkins said. "I'd won championships. I'd had All-Americans, had Olympians at that point, so for me, it was really about finding somewhere that I could truly go and feel comfortable as a person. I would feel good about recruiting my student-athletes to this area, and to feel like they were going to be taken care of. South Florida checked a lot of those boxes. And I had friends who had been there on the football staff, and they were all very, very complimentary of their time at the University of South Florida."

It took Jenkins some time to build USF's program, which only began in 1992, much later than most other Division 1 schools. During his first school year, he also had to deal with the onset of COVID-19, which hindered his ability to form relationships with players and go out on the road and recruit.

"[The pandemic] definitely slowed things down quite a bit," Jenkins said. "But it gave us some room to figure out ways that we could continue to improve as not only a track and field program but just across the board. That has been a major plus for us in being able to organize ourselves into how we want to move forward."

Jenkins and his staff have targeted Florida as a main area to recruit because there are a lot of talented athletes in the state and in-state tuition is much cheaper than for out-of-state students. But the coaches also look at nearby Georgia, as well as the Caribbean Islands for recruits. They've signed athletes from Europe, India and Africa, too 

"We look at the world," Jenkins said. "We won't put ourselves in one place and say this is where we're going to go. We're going to try to find the best student-athletes who fit what we want to do here at the University of South Florida."

During Jenkins's time at USF, the most accomplished athlete has been Romaine Beckford, who won the high jump at the NCAA indoor and outdoor meets last year. Beckford, a native of Jamaica, transferred to the University of Arkansas last June and won the high jump again at the NCAA indoor meet in March.

This year's team features Markel Jones, a freshman from Lake Mary (FL) High School who won the 60m hurdles at the AAC indoor meet; sophomore Jaleel Croal from the British Virgin Islands, who won the 60m and 200m at the AAC meet; junior Kobe Babin of Niceville (FL) High School, who won the pole vault at the AAC meet; and sophomore Nathan Metelus, a Fort Lauderdale (FL) native and transfer from Bethune Cookman University who won the 400m at the AAC meet.

Jones (No. 19 in the 400m hurdles), Croal (No. 33 in the 100m and No. 33 in the 200m), Babin (No. 20 in the pole vault), and Metelus (No. 42 in the 200m) are all ranked among the top 50 nationally in their respective events this outdoor season, per the USTFCCCA. Sophomore sprinter Saminu Abdul-Rasheed (No. 2 in the 100m and No. 11 in the 200m), senior sprinter Shevioe Reid (No. 20 in the 200m), junior sprinter Tre'Sean Bouie (No. 38 in the 400m), sophomore jumper Goodness Iredia (No. 10 in the long jump and No. 12 in the triple jump), junior thrower Vincent Ugwoke (No. 11 in the dicus), junior hurdler Michael Bourne III (No. 41 in the 400m hurdles), and sophomore hurdler Devontie Archer (No. 33 in the 400m hurdles) are also ranked.

* South Florida won the 2024 Penn Relay 4x100m title 

Photo Credit: Brent Skeen/USA Today

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The Bulls have compiled a deep squad through high school recruiting as well as transfers. Abdul-Rasheed, Reid, Metelus, Bouie, Archer, Mills, Iredia, and Ugqwoke all transferred to USF, while Jones, Croal, Babin and others have come to the school straight out of high school.

"It's great to have the transfers, but you also want to be able to have a culture within your program that allows you to continue to have sustained success," Jenkins said. "If you're constantly in the transfer portal, then those young people don't ever have a chance to grow into the people that really think they can be because you're constantly recycling them out. We try to have freshmen, we try to have junior college transfers, we have [graduate] transfers, we have international students. We just want to go out and identify the best person at the time for what we're trying to do."

The Bulls have tested themselves this outdoor season. USF hosted a meet on campus that included Ohio State, Purdue Michigan, Iowa, Iowa State, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh and traveled to compete in meets such as the Florida Relays, Penn Relays, Mt. SAC Relays, and Tom Jones Memorial at the University of Florida. At the Penn Relays, the men and women won the 4x200m relay while the men also won the 4x100m relay.

Starting on Friday, USF will compete at the AAC outdoor meet. The Bulls are looking to sweep the men's indoor and outdoor titles, which would be quite an accomplishment considering they had never finished better than third at a conference meet before this year. Now, though, Jenkins has the program on the right trajectory and is in a position to compete for many more titles in the years ahead.

"We certainly felt that we'd organized a group of very, very qualified young men and we thought that we could develop them," Jenkins said. "We certainly would like to go out and recruit the nation's best, but we also know that we need to be able to identify quality young people who we believe can develop into the more elite athlete. We want to continue to have that balance because we know we still have a long way to go just in name recognition and brand recognition. But we're keenly aware that in this new age of sports, a lot is changing."