Hush up. That's what Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins told the Indiana crowd to do two years ago, drawing a flag that chilled a potential touchdown drive during a nine-loss season. As a senior wide receiver, Jenkins finally let his play do the talking after one last sound byte. When he opened the season with 148 yards receiving against Arkansas State, Jenkins couldn't help himself.
CHAMPAIGN -- Hush up.
That's what Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins told the Indiana crowd to do two years ago, drawing a flag that chilled a potential touchdown drive during a nine-loss season.
"I'm kind of known for not thinking too smart,'' said Jenkins that night in Bloomington.
As a senior wide receiver, Jenkins finally let his play do the talking after one last sound byte. When he opened the season with 148 yards receiving against Arkansas State, Jenkins couldn't help himself.
"I'm the best receiver in the Big Ten just because I work harder than the receivers out there,'' Jenkins said in early September. "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.''
Finally, Jenkins is following his advice to those Hoosiers fans, even if only because he was censored by the coaching staff. Jenkins now lets his stats do the talking. FYI, he's the leading receiver in the Big Ten after setting a school record with 268 yards receiving against Northwestern. Jenkins caught 12 passes against the Wildcats, three of them for touchdowns.
With No. 19 Illinois (5-0 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten) riding its best start in 60 years before a road game at Indiana (1-4, 0-1) on Saturday (1:30 p.m., BTN), the Illini answered the biggest question in Camp Rantoul: Can this team pass the ball?
Behind the growth of Jenkins and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the Illini rank fifth in the Big Ten -- up five spots from last season -- by averaging 223.8 yards per game through the first five weekends. The jump created "a lot more possibilities,'' said offensive tackle Jeff Allen.
"It feels great to answer that question,'' Allen said. "At first, people thought we could just run the ball. Now, we're showing we can pass. It opens up a new dimension to our offense.''
Don't bother pestering Jenkins for that sassy quote about the passing game. He's not going there after getting an earful from offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
"It's just always better to speak lightly and carry a big stick,'' Petrino said. "He doesn't need to talk about it. Just go on the field and play great. Let people talk about you.''
But that confidence is one thing that separates great players from the good ones.
"You want to have that karma, that attitude,'' Petrino said. "You don't want to say it to the public. You want them to feel that way. You want them to jump up and know if you play me man to man, I'm going to win. All the great ones have that. You have to be careful saying it to (the media).''
Jenkins won't be baited during the week, even though his excitement after the game sometimes gets the best of him.
"Petrino isn't real big on talking,'' Jenkins said. "He's big on going out there and showing it.''
Jenkins said he's not a trash talker like Terrell Owens, but his personality lifts the Illini.
"He's the guy who comes in the huddle with a smile on his face to get things going, even when it's not going like it should,'' Allen said. "He brings energy to the huddle.''
He also brings production. Jenkins leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally with 126.6 yards receiving per game. His eight catches per game also lead the Big Ten and rank 11th nationally.
Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 391 yards against Northwestern, when the Illini used deep crossing patterns to beat another defense stacked to stop the run.
"That's huge for Nathan,'' Petrino said. "That's big steps, seeing it, snapping it and hitting it on time. We did some things in the passing game (against Northwestern) that we can build on.''
Scheelhaase threw the deep ball well, highlighted by a 50-yard touchdown to Jenkins into the wind against the Wildcats.
"There were three (deep) shots we called on Saturday that we didn't throw all last year,'' Scheelhaase said. "It's big for me to step up and hit those. It helps our offense if I'm able to do that. It gives the receivers a better chance to run balls down and the running backs a better chance with the defense backing up.''
Coach Ron Zook gained confidence after watching Scheelhaase at Camp Rantoul, and Zook doesn't concern himself with Scheelhaase's ceiling.
"Hopefully, he doesn't have one,'' Zook said. "Nathan is a person who will improve. He won't get stale because he's trying to get better.''
So how did Scheelhaase celebrate the career game against Northwestern? He went to see top-ranked Illinois volleyball, then drove his cousin to O’Hare in the early-morning hours on Sunday. While cutting through the Chicago suburbs, Scheelhaase finally came across the billboard proclaiming Northwestern as Chicago’s Big Ten team.
"I laughed,'' Scheelhaase said. "I wanted to pull over and take a picture. It was pretty funny.''
The Illini passing game is no longer a laughing matter.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
By the numbers
Here's the line on A.J. Jenkins and Nathan Scheelhaase
A.J. Jenkins/40 catches/633 yards/5 TD
Comment: Jenkins is on pace to break the school record of 1,278 yards in a single season by Hall of Famer David Williams in 1984.
Nathan Scheelhaase/68 completions/98 attempts/1,028 yards/7 TD/3 interceptions
Comment: The Scheelhaase-Jenkins combo accounted for 89 completions over the last two seasons, the most among Big Ten players.