A.J. Jenkins Develops into Illini Go-to Receiver, Big Ten Star

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In the 2009 preseason, college football experts were proclaiming the Illinois Fighting Illini receiving corps to be the best in the Big Ten, and among the best in the nation.

Well, the Illini finished 10th in passing in the conference out of 11 teams and stumbled to a 3-9 record. So it’s safe to say that the WRs fell short of expectations.

QB Juice Williams took a big step back in his development, stud wideout Arrelious Benn was bothered by injuries and never came close to reaching his ultimate potential (although he did leave early and became a second round NFL Draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so he did have that going for him- which is nice) and University of Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, a preseason second team all-conference, and a prospect rated the #3 receiver in the nation coming out of high school, had a whopping 16 catches on the year.

It’s safe to say the corps fell way short of expectations.

The turmoil led to changes at the Offensive Coordinator position and prompted junior wideout A.J. Jenkins to consider transferring.

Today Jenkins, now the team’s main weapon at the position, is plenty happy he stayed. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino is a big reason for Jenkins development, and it has Jenkins thinking big. He told everyone at media day that he plans to have a thousand yard season, 80+ catches, and a whole lot of touchdowns.

Petrino was a whiz with the receivers at Arkansas, and he did a great job in 2010 cleaning up the mess left by one-year-and-done offensive coordinator Michael Schultz. To say that the Schultz hire was a disaster would be like calling the Pacific Ocean “a body of water.”

Jenkins, a 2009 Academic all conference, and the 2010 spring’s co-most improved player award winner on offense (he sat out this past spring due to injury), is very happy to be working with Petrino.

“There’s no pressure, I’m just playing football, just like I was playing when I was seven years old. I’m not trying to be compared to Rejus, I’m just going to play football.”

Jenkins’ put up decent numbers for a freshman in ’08: 11-287-3 with a 26.1 yards per catch average; although most of that game in the Minnesota Golden Gophers game, and in the final minutes of it. In the Homecoming loss, he had three catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns, putting an end to his obscurity on the depth chart.

“It was kind of like a rub-off-my-shoulders game, I finally just had the opportunity to impress and get confidence in the coaches, and it was like ok, now I’m producing,” Jenkins said about the high scoring affair.

In four less games in ’09, he took a significant step backwards in production: 10-123-1, 12.3 ypc. But his 38″ vertical, and an insane amount of speed to run the deep routes of the Z-position helped him reach his potential last fall Petrino’s new offense. Jenkins had 746 yards and 7 TDs last season, making him a preseason candidate for the Fred Biletnikoff award; honoring the nation’s best receiver.

“Now I just need to go out and win it. No one remembers who was on the list at the beginning, they remember who wins the award,” Jenkins said at Illini media day last month.

Confidence is an essential part to Jenkins’ game, especially because his role model is the legendary Michael Irvin.

“His ego, and the way he carried himself, always wanting the ball,” Jenkins responded when I asked about his role model receiver. And Jenkins’ QB, Nathan Scheelhaase, is well aware of Jenkins’ bravado.

“He’s a confident player, he loves the competition and is willing to go up against any DB in the country I promise you that, so that’s we like throwing to him,” Scheelhaase said of Jenkins.

Scheelhaase threw for a career-best 267 yards. His 16 completions went to Jenkins, who had 11 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown, and Darius Millines, who caught five balls for 119 yards and a score. But Jenkins showed an amazing ability to both complete a route and re-adjust to the ball on Saturday. He showed a knack for corralling anything close to his area that might even get NFL scouts saying his name more often.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports 

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter

 

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