Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins could’ve made a season out of his performances against Arkansas State and Northwestern this season. In the former, he caught 11 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. The Wildcats couldn’t contain him any better as he exploded for 268 yards on 12 catches with three touchdowns.
Thanks to those two explosions, Jenkins already has more than 1,000 yards on the season. The 6-foot-1 receiver is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s most dangerous target and he’s the next top-flight wide receiver in line to face the Wolverines.
They held Michael Floyd and Marvin McNutt from Jenkins-like numbers, but those two still had their key moments. What kind of damage might Jenkins do?
At Big Ten Media Day in August, Jenkins sat down with the Daily to talk about the upcoming season.
The Michigan Daily: Do you stay in touch with former Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn? Do you talk to him about the NFL?
Jenkins: Arrelious, he just kind of — I talked to him last week — he just tells me to stay focused. Don’t be into thinking about the next level and all that kind of stuff, you know? Mostly just try and take care of business, win the Big Ten title then think about next year.
TMD: The Michigan-Illinois game last year was a 67-65 triple overtime shootout. Did at any point you think, ‘Man, let’s just end this?’
Jenkins: Man, that game was kind of crazy. It really came down to who was going to have the ball last. Each offense had to go out and score on every drive they touched the ball. That was crazy.
TMD: With Scheelhaase at quarterback and Jason Ford at running back, do you feel you guys have a balanced offense?
Jenkins: Yeah, I think we’re pretty balanced. Last year I think we proved we could run the ball with Mikel Leshoure. And this year, we’re going to improve in the passing game a lot more. We’re going to try to have more big plays down field and we’re going to try to have more explosive plays throwing the ball. Then, it’ll be even more balanced for us.
TMD: Do you think Scheelhaase’s development has allowed for that to take place? To have more big plays in the passing game?
Jenkins: I think coach Petrinio’s going to make his package much more broader. I think last year, we kind of — not trying to be conservative with him — we took it easy. With all the schemes, Nate has the confidence and a swagger about himself now. Nate’s got it. So I think we can do a lot more things with him.
TMD: Scheelhaase was a true freshman starting last year. What was your first impression of him?
Jenkins: To be honest, I didn’t think he was going to be the starter. I thought Jacob Charest — when he transferred — before that, when they competed for the job and Nate won, I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ That’s when I first started taking notice that Nate was for real.
TMD: How have you seen Scheelhaase grow from when he was first starting to now?
Jenkins: He made a lot of progress. I think last year, he was pretty good. But this year, I think Nate’s going to explode on the scene. I mean, he can throw the ball. He can run the ball obviously. I think Nate is going to be a lot smarter quarterback. Like the first couple of games last season he threw seven picks, and in the later part of the season he only threw one.
I think Nate, throughout the year, was just getting ready for this year. Nate’s going to be pretty good this year.
TMD: What’s it like playing for coach Ron Zook? Has the mood changed around the program in recent years as he’s been on the hot seat?
Jenkins: Coach is pretty cool. I mean he stays the same even when he recruited me. Coach Zook is Coach Zook. He’s very honest with you. He keeps it real. He’s just a good coach. And he’s pretty funny too.
TMD: How’s he funny?
Jenkins: He’ll just have little jokes and whatnot. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was going to be so laid back and just so cool. But he really is a character though. He’s just so funny.