A.J. Jenkins is glad he returned for his junior season at Illinois. Once contemplating a possible transfer, Jenkins found an offense ready-made to utilize his abilities. Despite playing on a team known more for running the ball, Jenkins caught 50 passes for 694 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Jenkins is enjoying the extra practices that accompany a bowl bid, his first as an Illini.
"It's going pretty good. It's been like Camp Rantoul, with the ones against the ones. We're competing, just trying to get better."
His first two years, football was over by now. He enjoyed the free time but is quickly acclimating to football in December.
"Definitely. I'm not used to it; the last two years we used to go home and be home for a long break. But it's something worth getting used to. And I want to do it again next year."
Despite his standout season, Jenkins wants more.
"I'm not satisfied. But looking at it compared with last year at this time, it's a big improvement. Hopefully I can reach my goals going into the bowl, going into the off season and next year. I want to have a lot of yards next year, especially since I will be leaving."
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino brought in a system that accentuates Jenkins. But he believes the other receivers understand and accept their roles. He believes practice opportunities keep each receiver involved.
"Coach P. says 'Feed the studs,' so he's feeding them. We try to keep a catch chart every day in practice, and we try to keep it as even as possible. So somebody won't get too far ahead or too far behind on the catch chart. It's a confidence thing, to make everyone feel part of the program."
Receivers love to catch the ball. But they run many routes that go unrewarded. Is it difficult to play receiver on a run-oriented team?
"Not really. In our offense, Mikel (Leshoure) and Jason Ford run the ball pretty well. I don't really care about touches. Sometimes I feel like I can make the plays, so I talk to Coach P. and try to get things going on the headset. That's all."
Receivers have long been known as prima donnas on football teams. They make game-deciding plays without getting their jerseys dirty. They are often superstars off the field and are attractive to the ladies. They rarely get hit, so they are the pretty boys of a football team.
And yet Jenkins and his fellow receivers toil in obscurity as blockers in a run offense. More importantly, they sincerely appear to enjoy their role in springing backs for big gains.
"Oh man, it's good. That's also on my resume for scouts. They look at my film. Next year I hope to use every aspect of my game. But I really think I have improved since last year about blocking.
"Jarred Fayson blocks defensive ends, Eddie (McGee) goes down and blocks safeties. We do a lot of things that are not really exposed. Hopefully some scouts will see our film and say, 'You guys can block.' We can wait until later for the recognition."
Illini Texas Bowl opponent Baylor is reportedly porous on defense. While the running game will be emphasized again, Jenkins believes the receivers will get their chances also. One way or the other, they must be psyched to play a big game against a tough opponent in front of a hostile crowd.
"Baylor is a team that plays cover 8. We play teams that play cover 8 defenses, so that's nothing new. It's just a Big 12 team playing in a different environment. Coach (Ron) Zook said they're gonna come down and claim they're better, so we have to come ready to play."
According to Jenkins, the Illini have worked too hard and come too far to end the season with a losing record. Seven and six sounds significantly better than six and seven as underclassmen work to improve in the off season.
"We need this win to go into next year with a confidence boost. So next year when we have a good schedule with 8 home games, we can have a boost going into spring and next season. This is definitely important, especially for the young guys, so they can start a new tradition."