STILLWATER — In a sport full of unique paths, there aren’t a ton as unique as Jayden Jernigan’s career as a Cowboy.
A former three-star recruit in the 2019 class, Jernigan made an instant impact at Oklahoma State as a true freshman. In 2019, Jernigan played in all 13 of the Cowboys’ games on the interior of the defensive line, a spot where players often need to physically develop for a year or two before jumping in. Then Jernigan sat out the entirety of the 2020 season. OSU coach Mike Gundy said Jernigan “had a couple things” with COVID, and they had trouble getting him cleared.
But after a surprise freshman year and a sophomore year without any on-field action, Jernigan appeared on OSU’s initial two-deep, sharing an “or” with Brendon Evers last week. Jernigan is expected to play in his first game in 618 days on Saturday when the Cowboys host Missouri State in Boone Pickens Stadium.
“I’ve had a long, long road with lots of ups and downs,” Jernigan tweeted Tuesday. “But that’s all behind me now. Blessed to say God has given me another opportunity to go back on the field with my brothers.”
Jernigan made 13 tackles as a freshman in 2019, recording sacks against Baylor and TCU and adding tackles for loss against McNeese and Texas A&M. He had a career-high five tackles against Tulsa in what was just the third game of his career.
More than his on-field production, Jernigan apparently helps morale. Sione Asi, who came in as a junior college transfer alongside Jernigan in OSU’s 2019 class, said he would recommend putting a microphone on Jernigan on the field because he is good at keeping the energy high during practice. That type of leadership apparently started when Jernigan was just a freshman.
“I was with him every day just learning from him,” Asi said Tuesday. “It was good to learn from him because he came in ready, and he does that with the whole D-line. He’s a leader. We needed him, especially as a freshman. No one expected that from him, but he stepped up big time and he came in ready. We’re just glad that he’s back.”
In his time away, Jernigan has transformed his body. He was listed at 6-foot, 300 pounds as a true freshman. He enters 2021 at 6-1, 285. Asi joked that he has tried feeding Jernigan some Polynesian food to put some weight back on him (Asi is listed at 320 pounds), but Gundy said didn’t seemed worried about Jernigan’s lighter frame.
“He’s practiced well,” Gundy said Thursday. “He’s down, he’s about 280 now. He was in the 290ish earlier when he was playing. And then he was out. He had a couple things with the virus and took a long time to get him clear, and then he had another little injury. But he’s had a really good camp, and he’ll be in a rotation and I’m excited about watching him. You know, it does a guy good to see a young man that was out basically a year and then able to find his way back and get out there and compete.”
Jernigan rejoins a deep defensive line. He and Asi are joined by Evers, Israel Antwine, Samuela Tuihalamaka and Collin Clay as interior defensive linemen. But according to Asi, Jernigan will still stand out in that group.
“You just wait because he’s definitely learned a lot in the year where he wasn’t playing at all,” Asi said. “He took that year as a year of reflection. Expect big things for him come this year.”
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