Culture / Sporting Life

Who Needs Alton McCaskill — UH’s Next Great Running Back Hope Parker Jenkins Is On a Toughness Mission From Mom

How a True Freshman Brought Some Real Hope Back to Dana Holgorsen's Houston Program

BY // 09.24.23

Parker Jenkins just keeps going, powering ahead, taking one, two, three would be tacklers along for the ride. To lift a struggling offense, sometimes you have to carry a little extra weight. Or a few extra large humans in hulking shoulder pads. Watching from the end zone stands, Ernestine Foster expects nothing less from her son.

After all, Foster didn’t raise her kid to be brought down by one tackler.

“From me,” Foster says, breaking into a big laugh when I ask where Parker gets his toughness from. “His mom is one tough cookie.”

With her Cougar red dyed short hair and black Jenkins No. 23 UH jersey on, Ernestine Foster is hard to miss in the TDECU Stadium stands on this muggy night. She stands out. It turns out her son does too.

Parker Jenkins might be a game changer for Dana Holgorsen’s oft criticized University of Houston program, the big time four star recruit with the track star speed and the giant heart who may offer real tangible proof that better Cougar days actually could be ahead. Jenkins certainly makes UH’s previously struggling offense look different against an overmatched Sam Houston team on Saturday night.

With Jenkins showing both shifty moves and toughness, racking up 107 yards and three touchdowns in 20 carries in his first career college start, a number of other options open up and Houston rolls to a 38-7 win. Beating Sam Houston — a team playing its first year at the FBS level, a team that has now scored one offensive touchdown (with it coming against UH) in three games — does not reveal that much.

But the way Holgorsen’s team wins this — in dominant fashion with one of his recruiting coups stepping forward — could.

“He’s a combination of strength and a pad level of speed,” Holgorsen says of Jenkins. “I mean he ran a 10.3, 10.4 100 (yard dash) when he was at Klein Forest (High School). . . He can run, but he’s powerful and can play low to the ground.

“That was a big get for us in recruiting. We beat a lot of people out on him.”

That includes the likes of LSU, Florida State, Tennessee and Penn State, which all pursued Jenkins. Jenkins’ emergence comes after Alton McCaskill — the man who was once supposed to carry UH’s running game in this first Big 12 season — bolted for Colorado and Deion Sanders’ glitzy publicity machine and NIL money in the offseason. And McCaskill made his debut for the Buffaloes on the same Saturday where Parker Jenkins announces his arrival. McCaskill turns out to be a non-factor in Colorado’s 42-6 loss to Oregon, limited to 17 yards on five carries.

Meanwhile, Parker Jenkins brings at least a little hope to Third Ward football. After Jenkins is done tormenting K.C. Keeler’s Bearkats. he comes to the interview room wearing pale green crocs, athletic shorts and a plain zip up sweatshirt, breaking into a quick smile. Ernestine Foster’s brought plenty of family with her to TDECU Stadium, but she knows there won’t be a big celebration on this night.

Not with her Parker.

“I’m just going to go give him a big hug and kiss because I know he’s going to be tired,” Foster tells PaperCity. “He’s not really a celebration person. He’s a homebody. He’ll be ready to go home, lay down and just play his (video) games.”

Parker Jenkins is equally chill when he finds out he is going to start his first college game as a true freshman against Sam Houston. Jenkins pretty much knows he’s starting by Tuesday night, but he doesn’t tell his mom till Friday. He didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but mom knows better.

“He’s been waiting on this moment,” Foster says. “So he finally got it.”

And Dana Holgorsen’s offense gets a much needed jolt. With Jenkins making the most of every carry, UH quarterback Donovan Smith and rising star receiver Matthew Golden find themselves with more room to operate. Playing a very controlled game, Smith completes 78 percent of his passes (31 of 4o) for 294 yards and a touchdown, He never turns the ball over. And Golden, who beat himself up over dropped passes in the first three games of the season, makes every target count.

He’ll finish with nine catches on 10 targets, with 69 of his 92 yards coming after the catch.

“I thought his ball skills were off the charts good today,” Holgorsen says of Golden, who is driving himself to be this Houston program’s next Tank Dell wide receiver game changer. “. . . I told Matt, ‘Just quit pressing, man.’ Nobody’s harder on him than himself. He’s the hardest on himself — probably of anybody I’ve ever coached.

“He cares that much, tries that hard.”

Parker Jenkins, Tackler Breaker

Parker Jenkins own care and relentless want-to comes through in those broken tackles. On one run, six different Sam Houston players have a chance to take him down. None do. That will take a seventh Bearkat.

Growing up, Jenkins’ family told him his running style reminded them of Barry Sanders, the incomparable serial highlight producer who happens to be the greatest running back of all time. But Jenkins’ game has a little Walter Payton-style toughness running through it too.

“I think it’s toughness and determination,” Jenkins says when I ask what it takes to run through tackles. “The determination like you’re not going to get me down right here. And the toughness and mentality to say, ‘OK, it’s me and you. I know I’m better. Let’s go get it.’ ”

In truth, Parker Jenkins is better than anyone Sam Houston has. He’s a major Power 5 recruit. Now, he and Holgorsen’s now 2-2 Houston team must prove they can do something against Big 12 Texas Tech next Saturday.

“That was a big get for us in recruiting. We beat a lot of people out on him.” — UH coach Dana Holgorsen on Parker Jenkins

No matter what you think of Holgorsen in the fifth season of his Houston run — and there are, probably rightfully, plenty of doubters and downright skeptics convinced it will never work in any kind of big time manner — having a little hope can be fun. It sure beats the alternative.

Parker Jenkins just might bring that hope. He could be a dude for a University of Houston program that needs a lot more of those guys. Jenkins has been impressing his teammates in practice for most of the fall, showing them he had something.

“Exactly what I’ve seen from him in practice is exactly what I saw from  him tonight out here on the field,” says UH edge David Ugwoegbu, the Oklahoma transfer who could be another one of those program reshaping dudes. “. . . The things we do out here on the game film isn’t just a surprise.

“However, we practice that’s going to show up on Saturdays. And Parker is a guy that works his tail off, day in and day out.”

University of Houston Cougars running back Parker Jenkins rushed for three touchdowns in a 38-7 victory over Sam Houston State University at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston’s offensive line gets a kick out of true freshman running back Parker Jenkins. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Matthew Golden, another major recruiting win for Houston himself, got to see plenty of Parker Jenkins while playing in the same Klein school district. Golden knew what the freshman with a sprinter’s speed and a linebacker’s mentality could bring.

“That’s the Parker I’ve been seeing,” Golden says. “I’ve seen Parker my first two years in high school. He’s still the same dude. When Parker gets started, it’s hard to stop him. He’s just a ball player.”

The support the true freshman running back is getting from his more veteran teammates says plenty. Golden gives him a huge hug as they pass in the hallway. Donovan Smith, the QB who transferred in from Texas Tech, does a video singing Jenkins’ praises coming off the field. Even more tellingly, Tony Mathis Jr. — the West Virginia transfer and usual running back starter who misses this game with an ankle injury — is in the freshman’s ear all week, telling Jenkins he needs to grab the moment.

Mathis knows Jenkins could take the starting job from him someday. Maybe soon. But he still puts the team first, still roots for the teenager with the easy nature and ever-churning legs.

“Tony was a big part of it,” Jenkins says. “He told me I was the starter. And I took that personally. I knew I had to take a different role. Rather than just sitting in the back watching, I had to lead them. Because they were kind of down and somewhat injured.

“So I have to be a leader, even though I’m a young guy. . . It was kind of a big deal for me.”

It could be a big deal for this entire University of Houston program if it leads to more. Mathis going out of his way to help Parker Jenkins is significant. It’s the sign of a healthy program. An example of what Dana Holgorsen is trying to build. With UH’s offensive line of Patrick Paul, Jack Freeman, Tank Jenkins, Tyler Johnson and a worked up Reuben Unije opening up plenty of holes and Holgorsen raving over the perimeter blocking of receivers Matthew Golden, Joseph Manjack IV, Sam Brown and Joshua Cobbs, Jenkins gets openings to take advantage of.

And he turns them into something more.

“From me. His mom is one tough cookie.” — Ernestine Foster on the source of her son Parker Jenkins’ toughness.

University of Houston freshman running back Parker Jenkins knows things are looking up for the Cougars’ future. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On a night when Beyonce would rock Houston, Holgorsen may have found his own more low key new star. It seems fitting that Jenkins ties McCaskill’s true freshman school record for touchdowns in a game with three in his very first career college start.

“He looks pretty ready to me,” Holgorsen says of Jenkins. “He’s got a chance to be a special player. First start. First 100 yard game. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of that around here from Parker Jenkins.”

This is what hope looks like. That’s a start. The toughest mom in the land certainly approves.

“Life period,” Ernestine Foster tells PaperCity of the advice she sent her son to UH with. “Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. Whatever it is.”

Sometimes believing is enough to start something new.

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