Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins caught 12 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against Northwestern. | Darrell Hoemann~AP
Updated: November 16, 2011 9:00AM
Cynics aside, college is about learning. Even for athletes. And by his own admission, A.J. Jenkins has had a lot to learn.
‘‘I’m kind of known for not thinking too smart,’’ Jenkins said candidly two years ago, moments after Illinois’ last trip to Indiana, a devastating 27-14 loss. He received an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for bantering with the crowd that night while riding a stationary bike on the sideline.
‘‘It was for the hush,’’ he said. ‘‘I was on the bike, and the people in the stands kept telling me to pedal faster. So I talked a little trash.’’
Fast-forward to Saturday. After torching Northwestern for 268 receiving yards — the third-best day in 115 years of Big Ten games — on 12 catches, including three touchdowns, Jenkins was backing up his announcement after Illinois’ season opener that he was the Big Ten’s ‘‘best receiver.’’
The 6-0, 190-pounder leads the league with 126.6 receiving yards and eight receptions per game. That certainly puts him in the discussion.
But now, Jenkins is content to walk the walk without talking the talk. Ask him if he’s Illinois’ go-to guy, and he quickly shifts the attention to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
‘‘I don’t know if I’m the guy,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘Nate’s the guy, if you ask me. I’m just staying humble, just doing what Coach [Petrino] tells me to do. Keep fighting and keep working hard throughout the week.’’
From Neon Deion to Ochocinco, the football world is filled with brash-talking, trash-talking wideouts. That’s not what Jenkins, who came to Illinois more trusting and naive than puffed up, is about.
‘‘He didn’t? What a surprise,’’ Scheelhaase said when told Jenkins didn’t want to talk about his big game. ‘‘Well, I’ll talk about it. Each time he has a chance to make plays, we expect him to do it. That’s what he did a great job of. He had a breakout game. It was fun throwing the ball to him and seeing him make big plays.’’
Clearly, Petrino and coach Ron Zook steered Jenkins toward his new modest ways. But it doesn’t seem like it was a tough sell.
The groundwork was laid at the end of 2009, when Illinois was groping after its second consecutive losing season. In a controversial move, athletic director Ron Guenther retained Zook, who hired Petrino while overhauling his coaching staff.
Some top Illini players were bolting the program, and one of Petrino’s top priorities was to make sure Jenkins, who was pondering returning to a big-time program in his native Florida, didn’t leave.
In a move that makes both of them smile now, Petrino convinced Jenkins to stay.
‘‘You have to trust someone to become great,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘He’ll trust and he’ll listen and do what you tell him. Me and A.J. are tight. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.’’
With his size and speed, Jenkins is built to realize his dream of playing in the NFL. That’s particularly true if defenses keep stacking the box the way Northwestern did, allowing Jenkins to excel.
‘‘I like coach Petrino’s offense because he puts guys in position to make plays,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘He knows what you can do and gives you the best chance to be successful.’’
Jenkins’ trust in Petrino, combined with the way Scheelhaase is connecting with Jenkins, means Illinois has the passing game to build on its 5-0 start.
‘‘A.J.’s creating room for everybody,’’ Spencer Harris said after making six catches for 63 yards against Northwestern. ‘‘Not only for the receivers, but also for the running game. He’s just outstanding.’’
Aided by the prodding of Petrino and Scheelhaase, Jenkins seems poised to continue to have a huge senior year.
‘‘It’s just maturity,’’ Zook said. ‘‘I’ve always felt like A.J. had the ability.’’