The Herald-Times, Chris Howell, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — By the time the dark days of December 2009 rolled around, A.J. Jenkins had all but said goodbye to Illinois.
The Illini had just bottomed out at 3-9, the bulk of the coaching staff was being fired and the kid from Florida wanted out.
"I had everything packed and I was ready to go," he said Tuesday. "I was at home. I was actually in Jacksonville."
New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and coach Ron Zook talked Jenkins into coming back.
Good thing for the No. 16 Illini that they did.
Jenkins, a senior, is leading the nation with 815 receiving yards on 46 catches. With his 182-yard performance Saturday at Indiana, he has 450 receiving yards over his past two games — something no Big Ten receiver has ever done.
His seven touchdowns and four 100-yard days — including a school-record 268 against Northwestern — are a big part of why the Illini are undefeated (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) headed into Saturday's home game against Ohio State (3-3, 0-2).
Back in August, the Illini looked like a team with only one sure thing — the run. Jenkins has turned Illinois into a much more dangerous team.
Twice last Saturday at Indiana, Jenkins ran by defensive backs who didn't know quite what hit them and both were long touchdowns — 77 and 66 yards. Illinois rolled, 41-20.
Two weeks ago in a 38-35 comeback win over Northwestern, the Wildcats left Jenkins in single coverage for long catches that kept scoring drives moving — even after he had already piled up more than 200 yards.
Jenkins and Petrino say they're surprised that he is still drawing man-to-man coverage.
"They can do what they want to do," Jenkins said. "They can double team or whatnot. I don't even know — I'm just out there playing ball."
The 6-foot Jenkins has great hands and good speed, but questions have always persisted about the parts of his game that have nothing to do with talent or build.
Zook recalled seeing Jenkins for the first time as a high school player that he and then-defensive coordinator Dan Disch were watching at Terry Parker High in Jacksonville. For 90 minutes, Zook said, Jenkins appeared to seldom move.
"I told Dan this," Zook said. "'You think we're (OK) with this guy? I mean, he didn't do anything.'"
Jenkins — who idolizes former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Hurricanes great Michael Irvin — declared himself the Big Ten's best receiver after a win over Arkansas State, then spent a week downplaying the comment. On one of his TD catches at Indiana, Jenkins high-stepped into the end zone, something that, along with a couple of dropped passes, drew Petrino's ire.
The coach's reprimand for the drops stuck with Jenkins.
"He got on my behind; he doesn't like that at all," Jenkins said. "Coach P knows me too well. He told me it was like a lack of focus."
It was Petrino, Jenkins said, who gave him an ultimatum back in 2009: Grow up or else. And it worked for a player who says he was homesick and immature when he left.
"He's not going to be a parent, he's going to be a coach," Jenkins said. "Either I was going to be a man and play or I was going to pout and not play. I had to make my decision."
Once Jenkins was back on campus, Petrino said he worked to gain Jenkins' trust through a steady barrage of text messages and phone calls that have continued: "Be great today"; "Work hard"; "Do something special."
Simple messages, Petrino said, designed to inspire and wear away the doubts of a young player a long way from home.
"Just keep knocking away," Petrino said, "and sooner or later you get them."
Jenkins is largely unknown for a receiver with some of the best stats in the country. There is some online chatter about the Heisman Trophy race, but Illinois isn't revving up the hype machine to fuel it. Jenkins insists that talk is "crazy."
Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said Jenkins is dangerous, but emphasized that he is the beneficiary of defenses designed to stop quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini rushing attack.
"It starts with the quarterback, and he gives him that opportunity that people have to stack the box and do some things because the quarterback can hurt you in so many different ways, and the guy that obviously has taken advantage of that the most is A.J.," Fickell said.
Petrino, like Jenkins, has a request for defensive coordinators around the Big Ten: More of the same, please.
"I'd play him ... one on one," Petrino joked. "Just let him run by you every play."
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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