Scheelhaase helping Jenkins back up bold statements

_Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success._

Before the football season, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was never one to shy away from bold statements. He made it clear he had lofty goals for himself, including averaging more than 100 yards a game this season as a senior. After posting 148 yards on 11 catches — one of which was a 72-yard touchdown grab — in the season opener against Arkansas State, Jenkins took it to a whole other level.

“I’m the best receiver in the Big Ten,” Jenkins said after the game. “You didn’t see my stats? I’m playing, I’m joking. Don’t put that on TV. I think I work harder than the receivers out there. I have the best coach, the best quarterback, the best linemen and the best sidekick in Darius Millines. Just having the best things around me makes me the best receiver in the Big Ten.”

The comments caught fire in the media and presumably prompted a talking-to from the Illinois coaching staff. And while Jenkins has since become much more careful about what he says, his numbers continue to do plenty of talking for him.

Through five games, Jenkins has racked up 633 yards on 40 receptions, including five touchdown grabs. His most recent performance saw the senior reel in 12 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns. After the game, Jenkins was still reluctant to take credit for the performance, which ultimately earned him co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.

“I think Nate’s the guy,” Jenkins said, referring to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as the Illini’s leader on offense. “If you ask me, that’s the guy. I mean, that’s the guy I look up to.”

Scheelhaase, on the other hand, was more than happy to sing the praises of his go-to wideout.

“A.J. didn’t (want to talk)? What a surprise,” Scheelhaase said with a laugh. “I’ll talk about it. … We’re excited to see him go out there and make plays. That’s what we expect from him. We expect for him to have stuff down the field, short stuff, make plays each time he can. Each time he gets a chance to make plays, we expect him to do it.”

It’s that level of trust that has helped take Jenkins from a solid receiver last season to one who now leads the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards. But that quarterback-to-receiver bond didn’t just happen on its own — the two worked together all summer to ensure they would be on the same page when the season started.

“What you’re seeing in A.J. is an awful lot of work that him and Nathan did this summer,” head coach Ron Zook said. “Nathan had those guys going all the time, and I think everybody here knew that A.J. has an awful lot of ability. He’s just taken the next step in terms of working off the field. He’s been in the weight room all year, all those things. And the work that they did this summer, I don’t think there’s any question it helped them a lot.”

That doesn’t mean the work is done, though. Jenkins knows he can’t become complacent if he hopes to back up his bold preseason statements.

“I’m just gonna show up and work hard in practice every day,” Jenkins said. “I’m gonna show up on Saturday and just have a game. Just be humble about it. … There’s always ways to get better.”

Jenkins isn’t the only one striving to improve his game. Scheelhaase also put in the offseason work to improve his passing, something that has been apparent already this season.

“When we were at Rantoul, I felt like he was a different guy in terms of the release,” Zook said. “I noticed the release more than anything. I don’t know if his arm’s gotten stronger, but I don’t think there’s any question he’s much stronger than he was a year ago.”