Sophomore receivers work to spark offense, give Scheelhaase options

Through seven games, wide receiver A.J Jenkins has been doing it all in the Illini passing game. His 127.9 receiving yards per game ranks fifth nationally, and 52 percent of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s completions this season have gone to Jenkins.

But as Illinois (6-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) learned against Ohio State last weekend, it’s going to take more than just Jenkins for the Illini offense to be successful. For Saturday’s game against Purdue (3-3, 2-1), they’re going to need the whole receiving corps.

“That’s something we had a big meeting about as an offense (Monday),” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “That’s something, they all gotta step up. They gotta show me in practice. That’s something we always talk about, building a resume, and that’s something real important.”

After Jenkins, sophomore Darius Millines is second on the team in receiving yards with 174 despite missing the last three games with a foot injury. Fellow sophomore Spencer Harris is second in catches with just 14 in seven games, and is averaging just 18 yards per game. A third sophomore, Ryan Lankford, drew praise throughout the spring but has recorded just five catches for 34 yards on the season.

“I think probably, and Coach Petrino would probably say this also, I think a lot of times in that game Saturday we maybe kind of stood back and waited on Nathan or A.J. to make the plays,” head coach Ron Zook said. “We got other players on that offense that can make plays. … That’s the one challenge I know the offensive coaches have put on those guys, that ‘Hey, there’s enough players, we can all make plays. Let’s don’t wait on A.J. to do it or Nathan to do it.’”

Against Ohio State, one of the biggest problems for Illinois’ receiving corps was dropped passes, especially when contact was made by the defenders. To remedy the problem, Petrino ran the receivers through what he called PI, or pass interference, drills.

“Let’s hold you, hit you and smack you, and you still gotta catch the ball,” Petrino said of the drill. “It ain’t gonna get called, so we gotta make sure we catch it.”

Lankford said the entire receiving corps has been using this week as an opportunity to make the necessary adjustments in order to be on top of their game for the rest of the season.

“We just gotta refocus and work a little bit harder this week on every aspect, not just catching the ball, running routes, getting open, things like that,” Lankford said.

Despite the recent struggles, Scheelhaase said he still has the utmost confidence in all of his receivers.

“Those are guys I’ve been working with now for two years,” Scheelhaase said. “The confidence is definitely there with them. It’s just a matter of making the plays in the game, and we know they can.”

The receiving corps should also get a boost this week with the return of Millines, who has missed the last three games with a foot injury similar to the one that sidelined cornerback Terry Hawthorne last season. Zook said Millines’ shoe has been fitted with a special splint to help him stay on the field once he returns.

“I know one thing, Darius can make plays,” Zook said. He and the Illini are hoping the return of Millines will help spark an offense that struggled mightily against Ohio State, especially with his big play ability.

“That’s what (Coach Petrino) talked about, not just catches but make big plays and get us long touchdowns like A.J. has been doing,” Scheelhaase said. “The more guys we got doing that, the more dangerous we’re going to be as an offense.”