It might have been the change of offensive coordinators. Might have been the accuracy struggles that sometimes affected Juice Williams. Might have been a lot of things. But until now, it has been awhile since Illinois receivers have been excited. They are now.
"They can see it," coach Ron Zook said. "They see this offense. They know how good it can be and be for them."
The leader of the pack, after an extraordinary spring, is junior A.J. Jenkins, the lightning quick, ultra smooth 6-foot, 180-pounder. He clearly became the go to guy for Nathan Scheelhaase during the spring, combining super soft hands with straight ahead speed and a nice burst to truly stand out. This after almost transferring from Illinois after the season out of frustration.
"But when coach Petrino came in and talked to me, I got excited," Jenkins said. "He showed me what my role was going to be. Now I'm ready to go."
His running mates in the three-wide set will be two seniors – Florida transfer Jarred Fayson and converted quarterback Eddie McGee. Fayson is the physically strongest of the group – 6-feet, 200 pounds and the most likely to line up in the slot, run reverses and break tackles. But he also has breakaway speed – one reason he was a five-star recruit – and is the shiftiest of all the receivers.
McGee still is learning the position but is rangy at 6-feet-4 with long arms and similarly fast with his long strides. Mostly, he just wants to win.
"Eddie is a team player, just a great guy to have on the team," Zook said. "He is emotional, passionate, and other players feed off that. That is why it's important he is out there."
The next group is talented in their own right. Jack Ramsey probably is next in line, followed closely by Fred Sykes and redshirt freshman Steve Hull. Even without help from a wide range of true freshmen, this group is talented and deep.
Tight end, on the other hand, lacks a complete tight end so far, although Justin Lattimore seems poised to become that. For now, he is more pass-catcher than blocker. London Davis, the likely starter, is more blocker than pass-catcher. Zach Becker may player there some, but he is most valuable as a fullback. Converted linebacker Russell Ellington could get a look as well.