A.J. Jenkins has some big shoes to fill, but not in the same way as Andrew Luck, who is immediately following a legend. When Jenkins was drafted 30th overall in the first round last month by the San Francisco 49ers, he went to the team that was home to the greatest receiver to ever play the game, and the two men are quickly developing a very public friendship, courtesy of Twitter.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the 49ers passing game was the envy of the league. Under coach Bill Walsh, the 49ers defined the west coast offense and helped to create the modern precision passing game. They had an embarrassment of talent, including back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young and both QBs had Jerry Rice to throw to – the greatest wide receiver to ever stride onto a football field. Rice holds every career passing record, and by huge margins.
After Rice, the 49ers had Terrell Owens, but they’ve been fairly thin at wide receiver lately. Michael Crabtree was supposed to fill that void, but he hasn’t produced up to the promise of his talent. After the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game last season, and came up two plays short of the Super Bowl despite only one catch by a wide receiver, the 49ers made improving their passing game the top priority going into the 2012 season.
First, they resigned quarterback Alex Smith, who had a breakout year last season under Jim Harbaugh. And for the first time in Smith’s career, he will go into a season with the same offense and same offensive coordinator as the previous year. Then they signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in the offseason. And then, they used their first round draft pick on Jenkins, the talented wide receiver from Illinois who is loaded with talent and ready to get to work.
Jenkins announced that he was going to train in the style of Jerry Rice and run The Hill in the bay area. Rice responded via Twitter to Jenkins with a challenge: “I’m getting in top shape to get you up that Hill!” Jenkins welcomed the challenge, announcing: “I know you will be ready… But so will I”
Running the Hill is part of Rice’s legend. The Hill is a simple horse trail off Highway 280 in San Carlos. Some of the other 49ers from the 1980s – Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Keena Turner and others – started running the hill for training and when Rice arrived, it became an obsession. As much talent as Rice had, what distinguished him and gave him the longevity that he had was his legendary work ethic… and running the Hill was a part of it.
“If you can master the hill, in the fourth quarter you’re still going to be able to go out there and excel,” Rice said.
Rice went on to say that running the Hill will help Jenkins prepare for the NFL, “I think he’s going to learn toughness and how to be able to endure, which is very important because in the fourth quarter when you’re tired, you’re going to have to make plays to help your team win that football game and you have to be able to stay focused.”
Jerry Rice, who turns 50 this fall, still runs the Hill as a workout and while Jenkins is less than half his age, I wouldn’t bet against Rice, definitely not on the first time up the Hill. You can see the shape he is still in, as well as the legend of the Hill, in the video below.
On Thursday, Jenkins landed San Francisco for the beginning of rookie minicamp. He tweeted, as his plane landed: “Touchdown… I’m Here!!” Rice quickly responded with: “The Rook has arrived. Time to get to work!”
Watching a few of Jenkins highlights, you can see he has plenty of raw talents. If he adopts Rice’s legendary work ethic, the sky’s the limit.