HOUSTON - There were signs all along that Kris Jenkins could be special. It was just that not many people picked up on them.
Ron Vanderlinden saw those signs in 1996 when he recruited Jenkins out of Ypsilanti, Mich., first for Northwestern, then for Maryland.
Dwight Galt, Maryland's strength coach, saw them after Jenkins' freshman season at Maryland in 1997, during a two-on-two pickup basketball game in Cole Field House.
No one knew, however, that Jenkins would be this special, that in three years the former Terps defensive tackle would become the premier player at his position in the NFL, that he would be a dominating figure in the Panthers' stunning climb to this year's Super Bowl.
"I thought Kris had a chance to be a good NFL player," said Vanderlinden, the former Terps coach who left with Jenkins after the 2000 season. "Kris made himself into a great NFL player. Who knows how they're going to respond?"
Even Jenkins didn't anticipate anything like this, he said yesterday, seated in a platform booth on the 20-yard line at Reliant Stadium, where the Panthers met the media five days before they meet the New England Patriots on the same field.
"No, in all honesty," Jenkins said, surveying the scene. "The last time I had a winning season was my junior year in high school. It gets to the point where you start to go through the motions. I love the game, but we were losing so much [in Carolina] that I was frustrated about it.
"My biggest dream always was to play in a Super Bowl and win. But that reality seemed like it started getting farther and farther away. This coming ... it was lovely."
All it took was a push from his high school coach, a benching at Maryland, the arrival of coach John Fox in Carolina in 2002 and Jenkins' surgery last summer for sleep apnea. Now, here he is, "living my dream."
Vanderlinden, now the linebackers coach at Penn State, can appreciate Jenkins' journey as well as anyone. He remembers a conversation he had with Jenkins' high school coach in Ypsilanti, Bob LaPointe, that registered.
"Bob said, 'Ron, I'm telling you, the big boys aren't in [recruiting] on Kris, and I don't know why because he can change direction and has tremendous athleticism,'" Vanderlinden said. "When I watched him, I couldn't understand why Michigan and Michigan State weren't recruiting him."
As fate would have it, Vanderlinden recruited Jenkins for Northwestern, where he was an assistant under Gary Barnett, and then went to Maryland as head coach in 1997. When Barnett wavered on Jenkins, Vanderlinden invited Jenkins to join him in College Park.
Jenkins accepted, but he proceeded to have a checkered career with the Terps. He didn't blossom until after he was benched for three games in 1999. He came back to get eight sacks and 18 quarterback pressures as a senior, when he was second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference.
But Galt could tell early on that Jenkins was a unique talent. One day after his freshman season, they were paired up in a pickup basketball game at Cole, and Jenkins, at 290 pounds, dunked.
"I couldn't believe how well the kid moved," Galt said. "He was so big and yet he was very mobile. He was a real agile athlete and had good quickness on the court. You could tell a lot from that."
Jenkins also was one of the strongest athletes ever to pass through Maryland's weight room. That combination of agility and strength has made him a phenomenon in the NFL, a player who can stuff the run up the middle or pressure the quarterback with equal aplomb. At 335 pounds, he can still dunk and he bench-presses 500 pounds.
Growing up in Michigan, Jenkins said he saw football as a way to improve his life.
"It was about me getting out," he said of his fondness for sports. "Where I came from, my dad was a single father raising me and my brother. My dad got us in sports to get us off the streets. He didn't have all the answers, but he did a hell of a job."
When Jenkins finally got to the NFL, he endured a 1-15 rookie season with the Panthers. He also got a label as a lazy player, in part because he sometimes slept in meetings. Turned out that he had a sleep disorder that ultimately was corrected by his surgery last summer.
Under Fox, Jenkins, 24, made a bigger commitment to the team.
"He's really grown up," said Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker. "As a rookie, he might not have watched film as much as he does now; he might not have practiced or played as hard. But now you see that stuff. Now's he going out and starting to learn the game.
"He's big and can run; that hasn't changed. Most of this game is mental, and that's where he really stepped up his game."
Jenkins, a Pro Bowl selection, sees it as maturity.
"It's part of growing up," he said. "This is my third year; I'm learning as I go. As you start to mature more, you start to learn that you can do different things to get the edge, so I'm just going to do everything I can to help me play that much better."
Who knows how much more special Jenkins can become?
"He's starting to become a man," Galt said. "I don't think we've seen anything from Kris Jenkins yet."
Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)
Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston
When: Sunday, 6:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Line: Patriots by 7