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October 4, 2011
CHAMPAIGN -A.J. Jenkins barely has room to breathe.
A twist of the head could mean a microphone to his eye. A lurch forward and one of the half dozen or so camera lenses focused on Jenkins' face could be splattered with the sweat secreting from the Illinois wide receiver's pores as the lights of the video cameras intensify the hot air - created by almost two dozen reporters clustered on top of Jenkins in the cramped quarters of the Illinois football meeting room.
Jenkins has felt this heat before - for comments he made in this same room exactly four weeks ago to the day.
Following an 11-catch, 148-yard day during a 33-15 Week 1 win over Arkansas State, the usually outspoken and captivating Jenkins proclaimed that he was "the best receiver in the Big Ten" while in the same sentence complimenting his coaches, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and offensive line.
By that Sunday, Jenkins was rushed onto the Big Ten Network to apologize for a remark that needed no apology. By Tuesday, he had noticeably been gotten to.
The usually sound-byte-filled media sessions with Jenkins were now filled with football clich?and short answers. Following last Saturday's record-setting performance in a 38-35 comeback win over Northwestern, Jenkins threw out words like "humble" and phrases like "working hard" and "give it to the linemen."
This isn't the real A.J. Jenkins.
Not that the senior from Jacksonville, Fla., doesn't appreciate his teammates. He often credits Scheelhaase and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino for his success. But he isn't boring. He was one of the rare college athletes that spoke his mind.
Yet after the backlash from his cocky early-season comments, Jenkins decided to hide his personality from the public.
"I haven't changed at all, man," Jenkins said with a smile. "I'm cool. I just be chilling."
For now, he'll let his play do the talking.
And, boy, is it.
Through five games, Jenkins leads the Big Ten in receptions (40) and receiving yards (633) - those Week 1 comments don't look so preposterous now do they? - and he demolished David Williams' 27-year-old single-game receiving yardage record (208) with 268 yards against Northwestern on Saturday. The Biletnikoff Award candidate - a speedy, sure-handed, 6-foot wideout who earns praise from coaches and his quarterback for his superb route-running - has the third-most receiving yards in the country, behind USC's Robert Woods (747) and Western Michigan's Jordan White (668).
Jenkins' fast start has propelled him up the Illinois record books. He now ranks eighth in career receiving yardage (1,789) - he's currently on pace to finish in the top-three - ninth in career receptions (117) and third in career touchdown receptions (16).
Jenkins set high goals in the offseason: 80 catches and 1,000 yards - to little or no fanfare or backlash. But don't ask him vabout the accolades or statistical goals anymore.
"I'm going to show up, work hard, practice every day," Jenkins said. "I'm going to show up on Saturday and just have a game and be humble about it."
Reporters and their audiences won't enjoy the affable Jenkins, but his teammates say they still get to experience the real , confident-almost-cocky A.J. every day.
"You can't get A.J. to stop talking," sophomore tight end Evan Wilson said. "He might stop talking to y'all (media) but he's always going to say something to us."
"I crack up about his interviews," Scheelhaase said. "You guys (the media) took the microphone away from him."
"He's the one guy who comes in the huddle with a smile on his face even when things aren't going as well as they should," senior offensive tackle Jeff Allen said. "He just brings energy to the huddle and the locker room. We definitely feed off of him."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook chastised Jenkins for his somewhat cocky comments earlier in the season. The coaching staff prefers Jenkins remain quiet to avoid headaches.
"It's just always better to speak lightly and carry a big stick," Petrino said.
But they don't want Jenkins to lose his competitive edge.
"You don't want him to say that (he's the best wide receiver) to the public, but you want him to feel that way," Petrino said. "You want him to jump up and know, 'If they play me (in) man (coverage), I'm going to win.' No question. I think all the great ones have that. I haven't been around a great one that doesn't have that."
Petrino - whose resume helped persuade a homesick Jenkins to remain at Illinois despite strong feelings to transfer following a disappointing 3-9 season in 2009 - has coached some great ones, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons and Louisville greats Arnold Jackson and Harry Douglas.
Petrino said Jenkins is "as good as a lot of guys" he's coached in the college ranks. He saw the talent in his first few months at Illinois two winters ago, but he didn't see the work ethic. Petrino coached him up.
"Honestly, the games become so easy because (Petrino's) practices are so hard," Jenkins said.
But Petrino said Jenkins didn't make his biggest breakthrough until he was forced to sit most of spring and fall camp with injuries (wrist and chest) and watched as sophomores Spencer Harris, Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines gunned for his No. 1 job. The competition fueled Jenkins, who had 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns last year, to work harder - just as Petrino had hoped.
"More than anything it's about showing up to practice every day and being prepared and having a great attitude and working hard and to push himself to be great rather than just get through practice," Petrino said. "Now he's working harder to be great."
Scheelhaase - 61.5 percent of his 1,028 passing yards have gone to Jenkins - said the senior wide receiver impressed him with his work ethic just two days after winning Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week.
"I saw him in warm ups in the JUGS (football throwing) machine catching, tucking it in quick and as aggressive as he's ever done that," Scheelhaase said. "To see that guy from a guy who just had a big weekend, you know he's ready and he's got a workmanlike mentality."
In a now-rare moment of disclosure earlier this week, Jenkins confided that he still thinks he's one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. He's never doubted it.
He still believes critics of his Week 1 postgame comments took him out of context.
"I think if an Ohio State receiver would have said that, it wouldn't have been a big deal or a receiver from like a school that's winning a bunch of games or whatnot, it wouldn't have been a big deal," Jenkins said.
The cameras will continue to shine on Jenkins if he maintains this blistering pace. But he'll continue to filter and muzzle his interesting persona, fearing the heat of a misunderstood comment.
"I'm just trying to prove it every Saturday," Jenkins said.
He can breathe easy because, so far, mission accomplished.
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM