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Aggies big catch

He has the speed of a sprinter, the size of a linebacker, the mouth of a prizefighter and the hands of . . . well, let's just say he has two hands.

Meet Nakia Jenkins, Utah State's enigmatic wide receiver. When the hands are working, he's a cinch all-American/pro prospect. But when they're not, he more resembles boxer Roberto Duran - you know, "hands of stone."Thankfully for the Aggies, it's usually been the all-American look they've watched during the past two seasons, and they hope it continues over the final four contests and into a bowl game.

For two straight seasons, Jenkins has ranked in the top 10 in the nation in both receptions and receiving yards, and by the time he's through at USU, he'll likely have caught more passes than all but one Aggie receiver in history. He'll also be second on the receiving yards list.

It's quite a remarkable achievement considering he's just played just two years, while the No. 1 Aggie receiver of all time (Kendal Smith) played four.

Jenkins is averaging seven catches per game for his career at USU, and some folks, including Jenkins, think it should be at least a couple more per game, considering the chances he gets.

He has two things scouts love - size and speed. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he's bigger than your average receiver, even by NFL standards, and his 4.41 speed in the 40 is excellent for someone his size. The only question mark right now is his ability to consistently catch the ball.

Obviously he can catch the ball, which he's done 123 times already in just 11/2 seasons at USU. But Jenkins, by his own admission, has dropped at least a dozen balls this year that he should have caught, after dropping only about half that many the entire 1996 season.

The worst game of his college career came two weeks ago at Oregon State, when he couldn't seem to catch anything between the middle of the first quarter and the middle of the fourth quarter. It got so bad that when he finally caught his second pass of the day in the fourth quarter, the crowd at Parker Stadium let out a mock cheer.

Jenkins ended up catching three more passes as USU staged a late rally, but his misses earlier in the game loomed big in the 24-16 loss. "I played a horrible game and dropped about five balls," said Jenkins. "It felt good to come back and have a productive game."

Jenkins was referring to last Saturday against New Mexico State when he caught 10 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. The week before Oregon State, Jenkins had a terrific game against BYU when he caught eight passes for 194 yards including a 75-yard touchdown pass from Matt Sauk that made the CNN Play of the Week.

BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who has seen his share of fine wide receivers over the years, came away impressed with Jenkins.

"He's a big-time player," said Edwards. "The thing I noticed was that he's so darn big. You seldom get a wide-out that big and fast."

Jenkins grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., about 85 miles up the coast from Miami. He was named by his "auntie"; his name comes from African origin.

After starring for Central High School and earning all-America honors, Jenkins was big-time enough that he signed with the University of Miami, back when it was one of the top two or three schools in the country, under Dennis Erickson. However, his test scores weren't good enough, so he went to California to play junior college ball.

By the time he got through at Chaffey JC, Erickson had left for the NFL and the new Miami coaching staff and didn't have a whole lot of interest in Jenkins (who, by the way, isn't too heartbroken about the recent troubles of the Hurricane program).

Jenkins had several offers, including Kentucky and a few others in the West, but chose Utah State, partly because of the chance to play right away in a high-powered passing offense.

Last year he caught 82 passes, the third best total in USU history, and, with 1,397 receiving yards, was three yards off the best total in Aggie history.

Coming into this year, Jenkins was talking big about the Aggies' chances, how they were going to go 9-2 and go to a bowl game. The latter goal is still possible, but at 3-4 the Aggies can't live up to his first prediction. It doesn't faze Jenkins, who usually speaks his mind about anything.

"My mom always taught don't be scared to say what you feel," he said. "Nine times out of 10 when I've spoken up, it has helped me."

Jenkins is confident almost to the point of being cocky and tells you exactly what he's thinking, even though it occasionally gets him in a little trouble.

He publicly predicted a win over Utah earlier this year, then proceeded to rub it in the faces of the Utes and their coach afterward. Of course, he also predicted wins over New Mexico and BYU and had to eat crow when the Ags came up short. His latest prediction?

"Nobody in our conference (Big West) is going to beat us this year, nobody," he said. "We've just got too good of a team. We can go undefeated the rest of the year."

And what does his coach think about his ability to spout off?

"Coach Smith, all he tells me, if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk."

Now if he could just catch the ball every time it comes into his area.

"I haven't been catching the ball too well this year like I wanted to - I've had a lot of drops," he said. "I know I've let a lot of people down, and I know they expected more things out of me."

But after his big game last week, Jenkins expects to "keep it going and continue to play great."

If he does learn how to hang on to the ball, he could be playing on Sundays for years to come. "I've got big ambitions to play in the NFL," he said. "Hopefully somebody has enough confidence in me to give me a shot to play."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Nakia Jenkins

6-2 215

Senior

Belle Glade, Fla.

High School: All-American selection after catching 48 passes for 1,281 yards and 17 touchdowns for Central High.

Junior College: Caught 47 passes for 721 yards and eight touchdowns for Chaffey JC, where he was all-conference.

Utah State: Is 9th nationally in receptions with 7.3 and 10th in receiving 106.9 yards per game. Ranks 5th in career receptions with 133 and is projected to finish with 161, second all-time behind Kendal Smith. Ranks 5th all-time in receiving yards with 2,145 and is projected to finish second all-time behind Smith with around 2,600 yards.

Career receptions

1. Kendall Smith 1985-88 169

2. Rod Moore 1988-91 153

3. Kevin Alexander 1992-95 149

4. Pat Newman 1986-89 145

5. James Murphy 1978-80 133

Nakia Jenkins* 1996-97 133

Career receiving yards

1. Kendall Smith 1985-88 2,943

2. Rod Moore 1988-91 2,422

3. Pat Newman 1986-89 2,221

4. Kevin Alexander 1992-95 2,208

5. Nakia Jenkins* 1996-97 2,145

*With four Big West Conference games remaining