CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was once all talk.
There was talk of him transferring before his junior season. There was talk of his lofty goals prior to this season, saying he wanted, “1,000-plus yards, 10-plus touchdowns and around 80 catches. So, I'm ready to have a real big year this year."
Then, there was Jenkins’ bold statement following his 148-yard performance in the season opener against Arkansas State that caught everyone’s attention.
“I'm the best receiver in the Big Ten just because I work harder than the receivers out there," Jenkins said at the time. "I have the best coach, the best quarterback, the best linemen and the best sidekick. Having the best things around me makes me the best receiver in the Big Ten.”
Jenkins and Illinois did their best to spin those words, but there was no mistaking what was said and who said them. It wasn’t like it was out of context. Jenkins has always been a big talker.
Whether his play has always matched that talk could be argued. Jenkins produced at times last season, catching seven touchdowns, but he only had three 100-yard games in his career before 2011.
This season was put up or shut up for Jenkins. He was either going to be the type of receiver he’s always marketed himself to be or he’d be nothing more than talk.
On Saturday, Jenkins proved which one of those he was, pulling in 12 catches for 268 yards and three touchdown in Illinois’ 38-35 win over Northwestern.
Despite a day for the record books -- his production set the school record for receiving yards in a game, placed him third in receiving yards in a Big Ten game and undoubtedly piqued the interest of the NFL scouts in attendance -- Jenkins was uncharacteristically quiet in his postgame media session. Jenkins sat down before a cluster of reporters and basically said nothing about himself or his performance.
It was a new A.J. Jenkins. His play did the talking for him.
The media certainly tried its best to pull a few priceless words from his lips.
Question: Were you frustrated early they weren’t getting the ball to you?
Jenkins: I don’t get frustrated if I get the ball or not. As long as we win games, I don’t care if I have no catches. It don’t matter.
Question: Have you replaced Mikel Leshoure as the go-to guy for this team?
Jenkins: I think [Nathan Scheelhaase is] the guy. You ask me, that’s the guy. That’s who I look up to.
Question: Why were you able to be so successful today?
Jenkins: Nate made some great throws, and all I did was catch the ball. I don’t think my job was that big catching the ball. … There’s a lot more to the puzzle besides me. I guess I had a good day because of them.
While Jenkins wasn’t speaking of his day, plenty of others did.
Scheelhaase laughed when he was told Jenkins had been mum.
“What a surprise,” Scheelhaase said. “I’ll talk about it. We were excited to see him go out and make plays. That’s what we expect from him.
“Each time he gets a chance to make a play we expect him to do it. That’s what he did a great job with today. He was consistent throughout the game and really just had a breakout game. I’m really proud of him.”
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was proud, too. Petrino has been a major reason for Jenkins’ newfound humility. He’s always believed Jenkins had NFL tools, but needed to put them to use better.
“A.J. has all the traits,” Petrino said. “That’s the big word they like to use at that level – traits. What traits does he have? He can separate. He can get out of his breaks and catch a ball away from his body. He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s got it all. He just needs to keep that attitude and he has. He just needs to keep it getting better and better, and he can make some money some day.”
In the media room after the game, Jenkins was asked what it was like to have such a performance. Petrino had just finished his interview session and overheard the question. As Petrino departed the room, he yelled to Jenkins, “You got to practice hard every day and keep it up.”
“You hear that,” Jenkins said. “It’s another good day. We all got to keep practicing hard.”