A.J. Jenkins Reaches Star Status For Illini

Fighting Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino likes to feed the studs. Last year running back Mikel Leshoure was highlighted. This year it is receiver A.J. Jenkins. The Florida senior had his best day as an Illini last Saturday against Northwestern, catching 12 passes for a school record 268 yards and three touchdowns. Jenkins is confident but humble about his success.

Illinois senior A.J. Jenkins ranks first in the Big 10 in both total receptions (40) and yardage (633) after five games. More than that, he is presently tied with Kendall Wright of Baylor for third in the nation with 40 catches on the year. They are behind co-leaders Russell Woods of USC and Jordan White of Western Michigan, both of whom have 55 catches.

Even before the season began, the Floridian had big expectations for himself and his team.

"12-0 and win the Big 10 championship. Go to a terrific bowl game. Personally, 80 + catches for 1000 + receiving yards and 10 + touchdowns."

So far, both he and the team are on a path that will achieve those goals. Some accuse Jenkins of bragging, but he backs up his comments with his play. And when asked, he always shares the limelight with his teammates. He was especially humble last Saturday after he broke the UI single game receiving yardage record with 268 in a thrilling win over Northwestern, 38-35.

"I'm just doing what Coach (Paul Petrino) tells me to do. I'm just staying humble, keep fighting, and keep working hard throughout the week.

"I'm going to give it to the linemen; the linemen deserve all the credit. There's a lot more to the puzzle than just #8. Trust me. I was just trying to go out there and make more catches, make more plays."

Of course, he also credited quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had his own career-best day with 391 yards passing.

"I think Nate is more comfortable than last year. Now that he has time in the system, he checks his reads and can play faster with better tempo. I think it's him being more comfortable with the system and having some weight on him so he can run faster."

The two put in the time during the off season, and it is paying off.

"We practiced together in the summer time, and everything's been great. Me and him became best friends off the field. Now that I know my reads and everything, we can be more on the same page. It's real good."

Speaking after the NU game, Scheelhaase was grateful to have someone as talented as the 6'-0", 190 pounder making his job easier.

"That's what we expect from him. We expect for him to have stuff down the field, short stuff, make plays each time he gets a chance. That's what he did a great job of today. He was consistent throughout the game. He really just had a breakout game."

Illinois head coach Ron Zook was asked the difference in Jenkins now and two years ago, when he struggled and considered a transfer.

"I think just maturity. When he came here, he was young and didn't necessarily know what was right and what was wrong all the time. Sometimes their senior year, they flip a switch. They work harder for whatever reason.

"And a lot of credit has to go to Nathan, for Nathan worked with him and a lot of those receivers during their spare time this summer and in the off season. He was throwing the ball to him, and he's gotten better and better.

"Obviously, Coach Petrino's done a great job with him, demanding that he be a great receiver. He's very talented as well."

Jenkins says Petrino has helped him beyond the technical aspects of receiving.

"He always talks to be about getting my body language right. When I'm tired, don't act tired, stuff like that. I've been doing a lot of running and conditioning. Last year I kind of did that, but this year it won't happen."

Petrino believes Jenkins has the talent to play professionally.

"A.J. has all the traits. He can separate. He can get out of his breaks. He can catch the ball away from his body. He's fast. He's quick. He's got it all. He just needs to keep that attitude, and he has. He just needs to keep getting better, and he can make some money some day."

Jenkins is the obvious go-to player for the Illini, but he realizes it is the talent around him that gives him openings to show what he can do.

"When you have Coach P., a great line and great running backs like Jason Ford, Troy Pollard. We have some great freshmen too. And then me, Fred Sykes, Spencer Harris, etc. We have all the weapons."

The Illini have been known as a running team in recent years. Jenkins is helping make the team more diverse.

"I think we're more balanced. You can't just be a passing team when you have Jason Ford back there, and you can't just be a running team when you have Nate, Darius Millines and me on the field. I think the way the game goes, if we struggle with the pass, we'll run more, and if we struggle running, we go the other way."

He will not let his success go to his head.

"I'm not going to demand the ball. I'm not selfish like that. I just have to keep working hard and pushing in practice. Just because I have a good game doesn't mean I can just cruise through everything and let up.

"I definitely want to work harder this year because it's my last time to wear the jersey. I've got to have a real big year and help the team win."

Jenkins also tries to help the younger receivers learn what he knows so they can replace him one day.

"I've been talking to them and been trying to be a leader by example. I'm not a very vocal person, so I lead by example. I'm just trying to do things the right way. I think after I leave they'll be in good hands."

He's also trying to expand his leadership to the rest of the team.

"Obviously, you want to keep everybody else going. You cannot think about yourself but try to motivate other people. That kind of keeps me going as well."

The 5-0 start is exactly how Illini players scripted the season. Jenkins sums up the team's goals.

"This is the start of something big. We have 8 home games, and the schedule is set up for us to win this year and hopefully make a good bowl game."

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