Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins says he's a new man, and he finished the spring drills by being named as one of the two most improved players on offense. After an offseason when he was granted his release and appeared set to transfer, the Jacksonville, Fla., native became Illinois' deep threat in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's system.
Early in a Big Ten Conference football game Indiana last fall, Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins made a catch, motioned for the crowd to hush and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. When Illinois was called for holding later in the drive, the Illini wasted a scoring opportunity, eventually punted and suffered another loss.
"I'm kind of known for not thinking too smart,'' Jenkins said at the time.
Jenkins now says he's a new man, and he finished the spring drills by being named as one of the two most improved players on offense. After an offseason when he was granted his release and appeared set to transfer, the Jacksonville, Fla., native became Illinois' deep threat in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's system.
A junior this fall, Jenkins already meshed with Petrino, who also serves as receivers coach, and evidently showed more maturity and coachability after considering a move to the SEC or ACC. So much for the other A.J. Jenkins, the player everyone knew last year.
"That guy is gone,'' Jenkins said Saturday, after catching six passes for 95 yards in the spring game. "That guy was immature, young, not thinking and really didn't care about the team. He just thought about himself.''
Like his teammates, Jenkins has work to do. He fumbled on the 10-yard line with the Orange team (the first string) driving on Blue (reserves) early in the game, and there's no way of knowing how these Illini will react until the games are official, beginning with the season opener against Missouri in St. Louis on Sept. 4.
An academic all-Big Ten pick last season, Jenkins saw his numbers on the field drop to 10 catches for 123 yards and one touchdown last season after catching 11 for 287 and three touchdowns as a freshman. Jenkins wanted a pro-style system, and Illinois' drop from 20th in passing in 2008 and 87th in 2009 had Jenkins thinking. He liked what he saw in Petrino.
"I did my research when I went home for Christmas break,'' Jenkins said. "His time at Arkansas, Louisville and the Falcons, it had a positive impact on my decision to come back.''
Jenkins posted three catches for 56 yards in the weekend scrimmage before the spring game. One weekend earlier, Jenkins made catches of 50 and 22 yards.
"He's just maturing,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Things go wrong, and he doesn't hang his head. If coach Petrino gets on him, he takes the criticism. He had a great spring.''
Life is good for Jenkins, who found his new home is the same one he had for the last two seasons.
"We're trying to become more of a team rather than the spotlight on Rejus (Benn) or Juice (Williams),'' Jenkins said. "It's more of a unit. It makes everybody feel comfortable to be here. It's not me, you or him. It's a team.''
BASKETBALL: Robinson senior center Meyers Leonard, one of three incoming freshman recruits, underwent an MRI on Monday on his left foot after recent pain indicated the possibility of a stress fracture. Leonard said he felt the pain while playing in Portland for the Nike Hoops Summit earlier this month, and he began wearing a walking boot Sunday while on a visit to the Illinois campus.
Leonard hoped to play in the All-American Classic in Los Angeles later this week, but his availability was uncertain because of the foot pain. He led Robinson to the Class 2A state title, and Leonard had no foot pain during the prep season, he said.
GOLF: The Illinois men's golf team won the Boilermaker Invitational on Sunday at Purdue, capturing its third tournament in the past month. Illinois won by 13 strokes. The 12-team field included seven Big Ten teams, serving as a de facto preview to the Big Ten meet Friday through Sunday in Minnesota. Illinois won the conference championship last season and shoot for their first back-to-back titles since 1940 and 1941.
"We're just now getting into our season,'' Small said. "We want to not only defend the Big Ten championship but also compete for NCAA regional and national titles.''
Illinois junior Chris DeForest captured the individual title at Purdue for this third championship in the past four events. With a final round 4-under par 68, DeForest earned the title by six shots. Meanwhile, the Illini women finished ninth in the Big Ten meet.
IN OTHER NEWS: The Illinois men's tennis team (17-9 overall, 9-1 in the Big Ten) earned the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Illinois women's tennis team (14-8, 8-2) won seven of its last eight matches to enter as the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten meet. … The Illinois baseball team (18-18, 5-7) lost its third consecutive three-game series in Big Ten play. Illinois hosts Bradley on Tuesday before facing Northwestern in a three-game Big Ten series Friday through Sunday at Illinois Field. The Friday game is the Bleacher Bum Barbecue. The first 1,000 fans get free food. Admission to the game is free. The Illini set a school record with 5,214 fans in last year's promotion. … Illinois softball (33-6, 6-2) defeated Wisconsin on Saturday before the Sunday game was rained out. Illinois plays a doubleheader at Indiana on Wednesday and single games at Michigan State on Saturday and Sunday.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com