Millines looks to build off ‘WOW’ catch in Texas Bowl

Senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins almost missed Darius Millines’ second catch of last season.

Playing in Reliant Stadium in the Illini’s first bowl game since 2008, Jenkins ran a draw route expecting the ball to find his hands. Instead, Jenkins watched quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass sail over his head.

At first, Jenkins thought his redshirt freshman quarterback had misfired on a pass to him; however, the result of the play netted a 32-yard gain for the Illini and a glimpse at the talents of one of their most promising young receivers.

“I looked back and I saw 15 go up in the air,” Jenkins said. “I was like damn, that’s a nice catch for a freshman.”

Millines isn’t quite David Tyree. His catch wasn’t a Super Bowl-winning grab. His athletic, over-the-head haul helped defeat Baylor in the Texas Bowl, not the undefeated New England Patriots on sports’ grandest stage. But Millines’ catch, which made highlight reels the next morning, was also a factor in the opportunity he was given this fall, when the sophomore won out the No. 2 receiver position across from Jenkins.

“It was what we call a WOW catch, you know, when everyone in the stands goes WOW,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “Usually if you make three or four WOW catches in a game you win. That was one of them. It was a great catch, great quick tuck and he landed on his back.”

Entering camp this fall, Millines had plenty of competition for the starting receiver position. While Jenkins was still recovering from an injury that held him out for most of spring practice, Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford battled for the right to start alongside the senior. Petrino said Millines has improved his explosiveness, route running and aggressiveness to the ball in the air.

“This is a very big opportunity because I know I’m going to get the ball more this season,” Millines said. “I’m just looking to be a playmaker.”

Last season, current New Orleans Saints wide receiver Jarred Fayson started next to Jenkins. Fayson had 38 catches for 355 yards and a touchdown in his senior season. Although Millines hasn’t started a game yet, Jenkins said he thinks Millines will surpass Fayson’s production as an every down player.

“We can probably expect more,” Jenkins said. “I think Darius is going to have a real good year this year. Darius is going to have somewhat of a breakout year.”

Illinois recruited Millines and fellow sophomore wide receiver Ryan Lankford together out of the Zook hotbed of Florida. When Millines made the catch in the Texas Bowl, Lankford remembers running onto the field screaming, “Let’s go D!” While the two receivers competed for the starting job during Camp Rantoul, Lankford said having a fellow Floridian in his recruiting class is a “great thing” and the two have developed a strong relationship.

“Darius is getting better every day, just like everyone else,” Lankford said. “We’ve all really been pushing each other. We all decided that this is our year and we have a chance to be a great group of receivers.”

Millines said he’s moved past his Texas Bowl catch and is focused on making the Illini offense one of the best in the nation. For the past three seasons, Illinois has ranked in the top five in rushing in the Big Ten but ranked 10th in pass offense in 2010.

“The offense is going to be best in the country,” Millines said. “For the receivers, we just looking to go out there, make plays, play fast and play hard.”