METAIRIE, La. -- Malcolm Jenkins already talks a good game.
That would be fitting for the Ohio State communications major, who envisions himself becoming a motivational speaker when his professional football playing days -- which are just now beginning -- come to an end.
Time will tell if the New Orleans Saints' first-round draft pick looks as comfortable in an NFL defensive backfield as he does speaking to reporters in New Orleans or school kids and church groups back in Columbus, Ohio.
"He's a sharp kid," Payton said Friday after the first practice of rookie camp at the Saints' suburban headquarters. "He's a pretty mature kid who learns quickly. ... We draft these players and we're hoping that they all can contribute, but we'll see."
Jenkins began rookie camp practicing only as a cornerback, though he also appears to have the size (6-foot, 204 pounds) and skill set to be a good fit at free safety. Coming into the draft, some scouts figured Jenkins was best suited for safety because his 40-yard dash time of 4.51 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine was slow among cornerbacks.
Jenkins would argue there are other attributes that cornerbacks must possess besides speed, such as his ability to jam receivers off the line of scrimmage and knock them off their designed routes. Jenkins suspects the Saints considered those factors in giving him a shot to play cornerback first.
"It obviously shows me they didn't care about the 40," Jenkins said. "If you can play, you can play. They're starting me off at corner, so I guess that's where they think I fit best."
Indeed, speed can mean little for a cornerback who finds himself misreading a play or biting on a fake, things that lead to receivers getting wide open for big plays -- and something the Saints have seen against them too often over the past two seasons.
When Payton discussed what he wanted to see from Jenkins, speed wasn't high on the list.
"You start with just the familiarity with the scheme and how quickly he picks things up from a technique standpoint, his alignment, his ability to key and diagnose," Payton said.
Jenkins said he won't take it as a setback if he doesn't start but rather a challenge to improve. If he ends up at safety, that's fine, too.
"They're going to put me where they think I can help the team the best," Jenkins said. "I'm willing to play wherever."
Jenkins held his own against every type of receiver during a college career in which he earned first-team All-America honors and the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior.
Jenkins started 45 games in four years, reeling in 11 interceptions and returning two for touchdowns. He also had 196 tackles and one sack, deflected 18 passes and forced four fumbles, and he blocked three punts, two during his senior season.
Last season, Jenkins had a career-high 57 tackles, intercepted three passes and forced three fumbles. He finished his career with 196 tackles and 11 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. He was an Associated Press first-team All-Big Ten choice as a junior and senior.
The Piscataway, N.J., native could have turned pro after his junior season, when he also was projected as a first-round pick. He said his decision to stay in school paid off.
"It worked out great," Jenkins said. "I was able to stay in school, win the Thorpe award, get All-America, enjoy my senior season to the fullest and got drafted in the first round -- still -- and ended up in New Orleans, which is a great situation for me. I think it definitely worked out in my favor."
The Saints are a good fit for Jenkins because they need help on defense after being ranked 23rd last season at 221.7 passing yards allowed per game. The Saints also have a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams and a new scheme, which only puts Jenkins on more even footing with the veterans.
The night before Jenkins worked out for the Saints earlier this spring, he had dinner with Williams and quickly realized he'd be happy working under him.
"I could already see where he's the type of guy who's very, very smart, but he's not going to take no stuff from you," Jenkins said. "That's the type of coach I like, the type that can rip you but still teach you what you need to know."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press