Emerging Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan returns home to face Jaguars

Timmy Jernigan has followed two strong seasons with a breakout start to his third season with the Ravens.

The game was called "Throw 'em up, bust 'em up," and Timmy Jernigan believed it was as close as he was going to get to organized football. All it required was a ball and a small patch of grass in the Jacksonville, Fla., apartment complex where Jernigan lived.

The concept was simple. A ball was thrown into the air, and the participants tried to tackle whoever dared to catch it. Without a helmet, cleats or pads, this was how Jernigan got his football fix.

"There was no football," Jernigan said. "We just didn't have the money, so that's how I learned to play."

The matchup Sunday against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field carries much significance for the Ravens, who are looking to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009, and for Jernigan, the team's third-year defensive tackle. He turned 24 on Saturday, and he'll get to celebrate his birthday weekend by playing in front of friends and family. His cheering section will include his 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, who will be at one of her father's games for just the second time.

As Jernigan — who was born in Lake City, Fla., but spent some of his childhood years in Jacksonville — prepared to return home this weekend, he couldn't help but reminisce about a time when an NFL career was something that seemed realistic only in his dreams and his drawings.

"I remember just being out on the playground as a kid and pretending that I was playing NFL football and all of that stuff," Jernigan said after Wednesday's practice. "For that to actually come true, and for me to be able to go back to Jacksonville and play in an NFL football game, it's definitely going to mean a lot to me."

Jernigan's homecoming comes at a time when he's establishing himself as a force along the Ravens defensive line. The second-round draft pick in 2014 has perhaps been the team's most impactful defensive player through two weeks with two sacks, eight tackles and five quarterback hits. His four tackles for loss lead NFL defensive tackles.

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees paid Jernigan the ultimate compliment Thursday when he called him a "true Raven defensive player." Initially drafted as the heir apparent to Haloti Ngata, Jernigan has made the transition into a three-down player.

"Timmy is playing really well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's worked hard. He's improved as a football player. It's important to him. He wants to be a great player. That's what he works for every day, and it's paying off."

Living out a dream

Even as a kid, even when playing football wasn't financially feasible for his family, Jernigan's desire never waned. While in church one evening, Jernigan asked his mother, Janice Stockton, for a sheet of paper and blue and red markers. He then drew a picture of himself in a New York Giants No. 92. jersey. Jernigan wanted to be the next Michael Strahan, the Giants' Hall of Fame pass rusher.

"I still keep [the drawing] because it's a constant reminder that it was all just a dream," Jernigan said. "When I say that football has opened up so many doors for me and my family, it really did."

Jernigan moved from Jacksonville back to football-crazed Lake City when he was 9, and reunited with his father. Tim Jernigan Sr.'s exploits on the gridiron in Lake City were the stuff of legend. His son read newspaper articles about his father playing nose guard and making 31 tackles in one game. Tim Sr.'s NFL dreams derailed at Arkansas State, but in his son, he saw both great desire and potential.

The two spent hours outside working on pass-rushing moves. The "swim move," a technique where a defensive player hits a blocker on the outside of his shoulder and then brings his other arm over the face of the blocker mimicking a swim stroke, became Jernigan's go-to way of getting to the quarterback. Every time he did it in a game, he paid homage to his father.

"His dad was his best coach and his No. 1 fan," said Craig Howard, who coached Jernigan at Columbia High in Lake City. Tim Sr. was a maintenance worker at the school and an assistant football coach.

Jernigan was 275 pounds when he committed to Florida State, but Howard said his work habits still hadn't caught up to his supreme physical skills. The defensive tackle was so gifted athletically that Howard used to take Jernigan to offseason 7-on-7 passing tournaments and use him as a tight end.

"He was in a man's body, but he was still young," Howard said. "He's just gotten better as he's grown up and matured. Football came easy to him, but as he got to the highest level, I think he realized that, 'If I want to stay at this level, I'm going to have to work harder and do more and be a professional athlete.' I think that's what's happening. He's always had the talent. Now, it seems he has the other elements."

Rebuilding his reputation

Seeking to take the next step, from a player who flashed occasionally into one who dominates consistently, Jernigan went back to what he knew this offseason, what got him to the NFL in the first place. Just about every day — and often two or three times a day when the Florida sun was at its hottest — Jernigan went to Columbia High for workouts.

He ran the bleachers as his girlfriend stood by with a stopwatch, timing his runs and making sure his breaks didn't last more than 30 seconds. He'd put his truck in neutral and crouch behind it before pushing it to an established finish line.

One by one, Jernigan is working to crush the presumptions, which started in the days leading up to the 2014 draft. His conditioning and desire were vehemently questioned when he spent a significant part of the 2014 Bowl Championship Series national title game on the sideline, sucking wind while Auburn mounted a comeback against Florida State. Jernigan's NFL Network draft profile described him as having a "fleshy midsection."

Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams frequently describes Jernigan, who is listed at 6 feet 2 and 295 pounds, as a "pit bull who won't stop."

There were questions about Jernigan's discipline and maturity when he tested positive for a diluted drug specimen at the NFL scouting combine before the draft. A diluted sample is often the result of a player trying to cover up drugs in his system. However, Jernigan says his was caused by dehydration. Concerns about it contributed to him dropping into the second round, where he was taken by the Ravens.

The questions about Jernigan's maturity have quieted over the past couple of seasons as he has stayed out of trouble and showed improved judgment on and off the field.

"Through all the success, I remember those bad things that were said about me," Jernigan said. "That helps me not be content. That helps me be humble, keep pushing and just staying hungry. I know if I slip up, they can be saying the same things again.

"That is the thing about being a professional athlete. It is tough. And especially playing for the Ravens, there is a certain way things are supposed to be done here all the time. As I get older, things are becoming easier to me."

Different personalities

Jernigan is a self-described country boy. He lists his favorite possession as his 1964 Chevy Impala, and he's most comfortable at home in rural Florida. While in Baltimore, he said, he keeps to himself and dotes on his daughter.

On the field, a different personality emerges. During warmups and timeouts, Jernigan bobs his head and shoulders and dances to the beat of the stadium music. When he makes a play, he's the first person to dance. When a teammate does, he's the first one to celebrate.

"He plays with a lot of energy. I love his attitude. I love the way he plays," Pees said. "He's playing at a high level, and I hope he stays there."

Jernigan had four sacks in 12 games as a rookie backup to Ngata in 2014, and four sacks against last year in 15 games. He's halfway to that mark through just two games this season, and he promises that there's plenty more to come.

"I have so much stuff to do, so much room to grow," Jernigan said. "I've nowhere near arrived yet."

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Timmy Jernigan

Age: 24

HT/WT: 6-2, 295 pounds

Hometown: Lake City, Fla.

College: Florida State

NFL statistics: Jernigan has 68 tackles and 10 sacks in 29 career games

Accolades: Second-round pick by Ravens in 2014; Second-team AP All-American at Florida State in 2013; Member of the 2013 Seminoles BCS national championship team. A U.S. Army All-American at Columbia High.

Personal: Has 1-year-old daughter, Naomi. His father, Tim Sr., played college football at Arkansas State after a standout prep career at Columbia High.

Fun facts: Jernigan was a high school teammate of Miami Dolphins 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil. Jernigan's high school coach at Columbia, Craig Howard, coached future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at Nease High in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

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