A.J. Jenkins figures to be one of the top targets on the UI receiving corps in 2010.
April 1, 2010
by Adam Carney, Illinois Sports Information
After recording 114 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota in only his sixth collegiate game, Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins was on top of the world.
"I was real happy after that game," Jenkins said. "It was special to have both my mom and (pops) there to see my first ever college touchdown."
The Minnesota game was the first and only game Jenkins' mom could attend that season. Jenkins said his family has always been a huge influence on his football career.
Jenkins joined the Illini in 2008 after being rated the No. 36 wide receiver recruit nationally by Scout.com. He chose Illinois over Florida, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and South Carolina. He said he chose Illinois because he wanted to make a name for himself on a team that was on the rise.
"With Illinois coming off the Rose Bowl year, I wanted to come in and start contributing early," Jenkins said.
As a freshman, Jenkins was initially surprised by the level of competition at the college level.
"To be honest, my expectations for myself weren't really that high," Jenkins said. "When I started to get comfortable, I got the opportunity to show off my talent in the Minnesota and Wisconsin games."
Jenkins followed his 114-yard performance against Minnesota with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the following game against Indiana, and then with three receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin. Jenkins said at that point, his lifelong dream of going to the NFL seemed like more of a reality than ever.
However, with the new season came new challenges for Jenkins. He said he was confident going into his sophomore season and expected to carry over the momentum from the end of his freshman year. However, he got off to a slow start in 2009, with only three receptions through his first five games. After a solid performance against Indiana in which he recorded four receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown, Jenkins went down with an MCL injury suffered in the fourth quarter of the Michigan game. He missed the final four games of the season.
Frustration and injury made Jenkins consider a transfer.
"It was a family decision," Jenkins said. "It had nothing to do with the coaching staff or playing time. My (pops) and I just decided it would be better for me to play closer to home."
However, in December 2009, the Illini hired former Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, a decision that would ultimately change Jenkins' fate.
"(Petrino) is a young, talented offensive mind, who has had great success at every step in his career," said head football coach Ron Zook. "What makes him most impressive is his ability to develop players and the strong relationships he has forged along the way.
Petrino brought with him 18 years of collegiate experience and an impressive offensive background. Last season, Arkansas ranked No. 10 in the nation in passing offense (303.3 ypg) and No. 14 in total offense (439.3 ypg) under Petrino.
One of coach Petrino's first acts was to sit down with Jenkins in a closed-door meeting to discuss his future. Jenkins said they spoke for almost an hour.
"He was very straightforward with me," Jenkins said. "I'm a more mature person now and he didn't give me any of the recruit talk."
After the meeting, Jenkins returned home to Florida for Christmas break where he and his father re-evaluated his decision to transfer.
"It came down to my dream of going to the NFL," Jenkins said. "Coach Petrino has a long resume of sending players to the NFL. After that there was no question for me."
Jenkins said Petrino is a very high-energy coach who expects a lot from his players. He said they have a good player-coach relationship and looks forward to playing for him in 2010.
With Illinois' leading receiver Arrelious Benn entering this year's the NFL draft, Jenkins will be stepping into a new role on the team in 2010. Jenkins said his change of heart in the offseason has made him more determined than ever to continue pursuing his football goals with the Illini.
"I've learned not to have expectations for myself," Jenkins said. "I do want to be involved in the offense more, but it's more about the team and getting back to the Rose Bowl next season."