Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins had a season to forget in 2009. Injured half the year, he grabbed only 10 aerials for 123 yards and one touchdown. This contrasted with an excellent freshman year where he gained 287 yards receiving for a 23.9 yard average and three touchdowns. He couldn't match his kickoff return touchdown his sophomore year either.
With fan support at low ebb, minimal passing to the receivers and multiple changes in the coaching staff, Jenkins considered transferring to another school closer to his Jacksonville, Florida, home. However, he changed his mind after Paul Petrino was hired. The new offense was going to need receivers as fast and talented as Jenkins.
"It's a long story, but I talked it over with my parents and prayed about it. I decided to stay. The new coaching staff came in, and it was really a no brainer. I'm happy I'm here."
What does he think of Petrino?
"He calls you all the time. He's always hyper, always hyper. I like him, but I'm not going to lie. He's the hardest coach I've ever had. He expects a lot of us. He's a real good person though."
One thing Petrino demands is for his receivers to battle for yards after each catch. No softies allowed on the field. He even runs with them after the catch to make sure they extend themselves down the field.
"Oh yeah, most definitely. Every day me, Jarred (Fayson), Eddie (McGee), Jack (Ramsey), Whitebread (Steve Hull) are gonna come out every day and work on it."
Petrino also has them work on what to do when the quarterbacks scramble and the original play breaks down. They must follow a plan of attack so the quarterback will know where to look for them.
"Two times in the last week, Petrino has had scrambling drills. When they scramble, we have areas we have to cover."
The Illinois defense dominated the first week of practice as the offense learned Petrino's complex season. But they reversed the trend in the third major scrimmage. Jenkins did his part, securing five balls including a long sideline bomb and a short pass he turned into a long gainer.
"It's been awhile since we've moved the ball well on our defense. Coach Vic (Koenning) does a good job with our defense. It felt good to actually go out there and move the ball against him."
Jenkins has no preference in the quarterback race. He likes them all.
"We've got three good quarterbacks back there throwing the ball. It's not a real concern."
Jenkins realizes both the offense and defense will improve greatly between now and fall as the players become accustomed to the new schemes and coaches.
"The coaches are new and everyone is really like freshmen, trying to prove themselves."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook has been excited about Jenkins this spring.
"He's had great practices. That's why we wanted to keep him here. It was a tough year for everybody. A.J. is happy, he's talking more than he's ever talked. He's confident. I think he'll have a big year."