Relationship with offensive coordinator key to Jenkins’ success

At the end of A.J. Jenkins’ sophomore year at Illinois, his bags were packed.

He headed home to “Jacksonville”:, Fla., with no intention of returning to Champaign to finish the remainder of his collegiate career in orange and blue.

“Back then I was kind of immature,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t, like, open to everything and also, I was a little home sick. It was a lot of things like that but obviously I came back and I’m happy now. We’re “6-0”:, I’m glad I’m here.”

While head coach Ron Zook convinced the wide receiver not to transfer closer to home, then-first-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was the driving force in Jenkins’ maturity. Petrino told the junior he wasn’t going to treat him like a parent, but as a coach.

“I had to grow up if I wanted to play for him,” Jenkins said. “That’s one thing that he taught me, is how to be a man. Either I was going to be a man and play or pout and not play, so I had to make my decision.”

Petrino immediately sought out Jenkins’ trust through periodic texts and technical coaching. Less than two years later as a senior, Jenkins is having his best season as a member of the Illini, crediting Petrino for his growth.

“You work hard for him, show him that you’re doing everything you can to make them the best they can be and you show them that the techniques you’re teaching them work,” Petrino said. “You tell them that you care about them.”

After totaling 450 yards over the last two games, Jenkins ranks second in the NCAA this season in receiving yards, nine yards behind Western Michigan’s Jordan White. He is not only a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s best college receiver, but he has recently entered the conversation for the Heisman Trophy.

“I don’t even really even look into it, but my mom called me the other day and told me about it,” Jenkins said. “It’s crazy. I don’t know, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing man and listen to Coach Zook and Coach P. … Heisman was never even in my picture frame. I wasn’t even thinking about winning no kind of award. I’m out here trying to be the best A.J. that I can for this team.”

In last week’s win against Indiana, Jenkins totaled 170 yards and two touchdowns in the first half but dropped a couple balls and recorded 12 yards in the second half. Petrino said the drops were merely a matter of misplaced focus, and Jenkins has too good of hands to be missing catches like he did Saturday.

“He got on my behind about that, he don’t like that at all,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes when I caught the ball he said I did some things wrong. He’s like a real good technician coach. … Coach P knows me too well. He’ll tell me on this drop it was, like, a focus or on that drop it was this and that. It’s catches that I make in my sleep all the time, so it was kind of surprising to me that I dropped it.”

On his first touchdown of the game, Jenkins high-stepped into the end zone, narrowly evading the new penalty for excessive celebration that eliminates the touchdown and enforces a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. The penalty was called last week against LSU on a fake punt, when Tigers punter Brad Wing taunted Florida defenders as he scored. Jenkins said he heard about the play in the LSU game, and Petrino immediately yelled at him after his own celebration.

“That’s not acceptable,” Petrino said. “We’re not going to do that anymore. We just need to score the ball, hand it to the official and be ready to play the next play. He listens. Sometimes when you make a huge play your emotions, you’re maybe not thinking right at that moment. But he listens … We just need him to keep playing good and not do anything stupid.”

Jenkins’ greatest development this offseason was his confidence, a byproduct of Petrino’s daily text messages: “Be good today.” “Do something special.”

He now “licks his chops” in double coverage because he knows he can still get open.

Petrino said he’s surprised Jenkins isn’t getting schemed against more often, but he has the answer for opposing teams who want a hint at how to handle the Big Ten’s leading receiver.

“I’d play him press man one on one,” Petrino said with a laugh.

Jenkins wouldn’t mind licking his chops at single coverage, either.