WILCOX — Wilcox-Hildreth senior running back/linebacker AJ Jenkins was capable of scoring a touchdown any time he touched the ball.
In the Falcons’ second game of the season, Jenkins notched three rushing scores and returned a fumble and a kickoff for touchdowns. His success against Deshler was a glimpse of the impact he had for the Falcons each game.
Jenkins posted a historic season and capped his four-year career with 127 total touchdowns, which broke a six-man career state record. He also led Wilcox-Hildreth to its first-ever state championship since the two schools consolidated in 2002-03 with a 52-40 victory over Hay Springs on Nov. 16, which capped a perfect 12-0 season.
His play-making ability led to an extraordinary season and the distinction as this year’s Kearney Hub 6-man/8-man Player of the Year.
“I think the biggest thing was I stepped up from previous years with the experience and leadership,” said Jenkins, a soft-spoken and humble athlete with a team-first mentality.
“You couldn’t ask for a better finish to the year. It’s what we’ve been hoping for since our freshman year. We worked in the offseason in the weight room and it just all culminated in that last game.”
In 12 games, Jenkins carried the ball 209 times for 2,752 yards and 46 touchdowns. He completed 17 of 34 passes for 271 yards and seven touchdowns, while hauling in 18 passes for 324 yards and seven scores.
Defensively, he tallied 76 solo tackles to finish with 170 total tackles. He also intercepted two passes and recovered six fumbles.
Besides finding the end zone 49 times offensively, Jenkins returned three fumbles, two interceptions, one punt and one kickoff for scores to finish with 60 total touchdowns this season.
“It’s pretty easy to remember him as a football player because of everything he did,” coach Gabe Eberhardt said. “Anything we ever asked of him as a football player, he’s done for us. Because his offensive stats are so big, his defensive stats don’t probably get the attention they deserve.
“I am going to remember him more by the guy he is. He’s grown so much into a very respectable young man that has helped change our culture.”
Jenkins rarely came off the field unless the Falcons had a substantial lead.
He accumulated 447 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 29 carries while recording 20 tackles against Eustis-Farnam on Oct. 5.
Less than a month later, Jenkins had another eye-popping performance. He carried the ball 11 times for 287 yards and seven touchdowns, caught one pass for 31 yards and a score, and registered 18 tackles in a 100-56 thrashing of Creek Valley in the first round of the playoffs on Oct. 26.
Neither of those two showings ranked as his top game this season, according to Jenkins and Eberhardt.
The two agreed his best performance came in a 63-50 victory over Harvard in a six-man state football semifinal game on Nov. 9.
Harvard led most of the game before the Falcons strung together four straight scores to take a lead and win the contest.
Jenkins played a critical role on both sides of the ball in the victory.
He rushed for 354 yards and five scores on 29 carries. He also stepped in at quarterback in the second half to replace injured starter Bryce Tobiassen and completed 7 of 7 passes for 113 yards and four TDs. Defensively, Jenkins posted a team-high 21 tackles.
“Every game AJ played, he had a chance to have his best game of the season,” Eberhardt said. “That’s how talented he is.
“The Harvard game was huge for him. He was capable of having that stat line in any game. To have that kind of stat line in any kind of game, regardless of it was six-man or 11-man, is something pretty special to see.”
The dynamic six-man player wrapped up his four-year career with 655 carries, 6,604 yards and 104 touchdowns. He also threw for 634 yards and 11 scores, while catching 64 passes for 787 yards and 13 TDs.
Jenkins was just as impressive on the defensive side, notching 416 career tackles, 19 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions.
He improved each season and his numbers reflected that growth. He attained nearly 2,000 more total yards as a senior than he did his freshman year in 2015.
Eberhardt credits Jenkins’ mentality and work ethic for his progression throughout his four-year career.
“This year, I kind of developed that sense of vision,” Jenkins said. “That really helped me see the field and change the game because we don’t have as big of lineman this year, which caused me to change my running style compared to other years.”
Jenkins hopes to play college football but is unsure at what university. He’s visited the University of Nebraska and University of Nebraska at Kearney and has interest from Division II schools, Eberhardt said.
Jenkins is exploring his options and said he’d “love to go to UNL.”
Although the casual fan might question how a six-man player would translate to 11-man football, Jenkins believes his ability to make tackles in the open field against explosive six-man players “is one of the biggest selling points bigger colleges can look at.”
Eberhardt echoed Jenkins’ evaluation of his game and ability to play at the collegiate level.
“Someone is going to win the lottery with him because he’s probably not going to get as many looks as he should because he’s a six-man player,” Eberhardt said. “I think schools are starting to realize that you can be pretty talented in six-man and that it will translate.
“I think he’s a great player to prove that six-man players can play at the next level. I am excited to see it because I think he’s going to shock the world in regards to what people think his ceiling is. What he can do at the next level is going to be fun to watch.”