A.J. Jenkins showed great promise as a freshman in 2008. He caught 11 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns, and he returned a kickoff 96 yards for another score. Two of his receiving TD's came against Minnesota where he accumulated 117 yards in just three catches.
However, a combination of injuries, lack of offensive continuity and discouragement limited Jenkins to just 123 yards and one TD in 2009. He considered transferring but changed his mind after soul-searching and a long talk with new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. He is glad he stayed.
"Petrino has been a great coach. He's given me a lot more confidence. I stepped back after last year was disturbing. I came back and found a new attitude. Not just about myself, but Petrino has given me new confidence. He's a very honest person, very vocal. He's just a very outspoken person."
Petrino is a tough task master, but that is what Jenkins wanted all along.
"Definitely. I told him in the meeting when I was being re-recruited, I'm already here. I'm already signed, so just coach me. That's what I like. He takes nothing for granted. He grew up in Montana, so he's very competitive."
The Jacksonville, Florida, product likes the new offense also.
"Everything we do is based on play action, throw the ball upfield. My role in our offense is basically making plays. And along with me, (Jarred) Fayson, Eddie McGee, (Fred) Sykes, (Jack) Ramsey, we're all gonna play our roles. Just make plays."
He agrees the new offense fits his talents better.
"Definitely. Definitely. Last year was kind of a frustrating year. They're giving us opportunities to make more plays this year."
In fact, Petrino says he wants one or two receivers who can beat his man on every route. Jenkins is humble but knows he is one of those.
"Definitely. There's no db I can't beat one on one."
Through three games of the 2010 season, Jenkins already has 12 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns. That is impressive given the emphasis placed on the Illinois running game so far.
Even more impressive is the fact he damaged a little finger early in fall practice. Most are calling it a fracture, but Jenkins stops short of that assessment.
"I badly jammed it at Rantoul, so they gave me a cast to wear in the games. It's a smaller version of what I wear in practice, but it works."
While Jenkins was held out of work on the Jugs machine, which fires balls at receivers, during fall camp, Illinois head coach Ron Zook saw little if any difference in his young receiver's ability to catch the ball.
"I don't think the cast affects him at all. I saw him make some catches at practice there were unbelievable. He'll tell you it affects him, but I don't think it affects him at all."
Jenkins has also been a reliable blocker, a necessity in the Illini offense.
"Petrino always says the running game is just as important as the passing game because the running game sets the tone. The receivers have to do what it takes, whether blocking for the running backs or whatever. They're the main guys during blitzes if we do throw the ball."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a redshirt freshman, so he is being brought along slowly in the passing game. Jenkins says Scheelhaase throws a catchable ball and has a promising future.
"Yeah, definitely. He has been outstanding. Miles (Osei) is coming up real good, but Nate has taken it to a different level from last year. Just from the spring through the summer, his work ethic, his leadership, his commitment and everything has come together.
"The thing I feel about Nate, we've got Mikel (Leshoure) in the backfield, Jason Ford in the backfield, me and Fayson on the outside perimeter, and you've got Fred. So it's not gonna be a case where we're all by ourselves. There are a lot of weapons to throw to."
Zook understates Jenkins's value to the team so far this season.
"I think he's done extremely well. He and Jarred have the least drops of everybody from the time we started, counting all of Rantoul and everything."