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A.J. Jenkins Learns on the Fly


Imagine having one of your childhood idols some twenty feet away from you. It would be pretty challenging to not immediately get in that person's face for some interaction time and a possible autograph, but that hasn't been the case with 49ers rookie A.J. Jenkins and veteran wideout Randy Moss.

That's not to say the two haven't been communicating on the practice fields during the final week of the San Francisco 49ers' second phase of offseason workouts. But it also signifies the Illinois wide receiver's respect for Moss, now entering his 14th NFL season and first with the 49ers.

Jenkins grew up with Moss' a No. 84 Minnesota Vikings jersey, but hasn't pushed for the veteran's signature. Instead, the team's No. 30 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft has sought out Moss for receiving tips.

"I asked Moss a question today and he gave me everything, he broke it down," said Jenkins, who's enjoying his first week of practice time with the full set of San Francisco wideouts. "I was still kind of amazed that I was even talking to him. It's cool. Hopefully I can develop a nice relationship with Moss down the road."

With the second phase of offseason workouts signaling the start of rookies and veterans working together at practice and in the weight room, all drills still remain non-contact work. For receivers like Jenkins, facing no opposition in practice has allowed him to focus on picking up the routes and concepts in an entirely new offense.

"It's coming," Jenkins said of his general understanding of Greg Roman's offensive system. "I know there's a lot more I need to learn but I'm getting the basics. My head is in the playbook every day, hopefully I'll get it soon enough."

Making things easier for the 6-foot, 192-pound wideout is the presence of rookie receivers Nathan Palmer and Brian Tyms, who signed with the 49ers as undrafted free agents from Northern Illinois and Florida A&M, respectively.

Having fellow rookies to lean on has also been a big plus according to Palmer, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound wideout who called the trio, "the tree amigos."

"The good thing about those guys is that we're all kind of goofy," said Palmer, who started 20 games in college, catching 93 passes for 1,575 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. "We come in here we have fun in the locker room and when it's time to go to work we're all three together, eating together, going over plays."

Chris Owusu, an undrafted wideout from Stanford, happens to be away from team headquarters until his graduation date, but isn't left out of the group by any means. "He fits in right along," Palmer added.

Palmer, too, has appreciated insight from Moss and the team's leading wideout of 2011, Michael Crabtree.

"It's nice having Randy out there to tell us how to do certain routes," Palmer added. "And it's nice having Crabtree pulling people aside, 'like hey, you've got to run it like this.'"

Being an NFL newcomer at wide receiver is one of the toughest spots to crack in the professional ranks. Second-year wideout Joe Hastings has sort of been through what this year's rookies are experiencing, only, he didn't have a full offseason to prepare for camp because of last summer's work stoppage.

"As a young guy you come in wide-eyed, especially with the rookie camp," said Hastings, a 6-foot, 185-pound wideout who was on the practice squad for most of 2011 before being called up to the active roster in Week 17. "I didn't know what that was like; we didn't have a rookie camp or anything in the offseason. I think for those guys, they're doing well with having a lot thrown at them. We're trying to help them when we can, the guys helped me last year when I was a rookie and it helps a lot."

Hastings sees eagerness from this year's rookies, who've been lining up behind veteran receivers to get a feel for the routes and play-call concepts.

"They're very eager to learn," Hastings said. "They all ask a lot of questions; they all want to learn the offense. You can see the hunger in them… I don't think any of them are complacent at all."

Personally, Hastings feels like its "night and day" in terms of his own confidence. Going through an entire season makes it much easier for Hastings to compete for a roster spot the second time around.

"I know exactly how these rookies feel," said Hastings, who also went undrafted in 2011 out of Washburn University. "You get in and it's kind of like a new routine, having to learn the system. It's night and day, you just feel more comfortable with the offense. You've known it for a year now, you know what's expected."

It's tough having to compete with veterans when you're just being exposed to the play calls, but as long as the rookies lean on each other throughout the season, they should be ready by training camp to compete for playing time.

Already, things are settling down for the newcomers who are digesting their first playbooks in the NFL. Though last Friday's opening session of a three-day rookie camp was at times daunting for some, it gave the rookies confidence that they belonged.

"I think we all got better," Palmer said. "You could see the team got better overall. It was a great feel overall. We caught a lot of balls and started to learn the offense. As the days went on we started to settle and just play ball like we've been doing."

For Jenkins, that's exactly what the receiver wanted to get out of the camp, by getting back into a football routine.

"It's fun to go out there, throw the ball around and catch it," Jenkins explained. "My head was spinning – it was like a chicken with its head cut off. I was just running around trying to get the plays and the concepts right, but it's fun just doing what I'm used to doing, just playing football."

Even better for Jenkins, now he has veterans and a few "amigos" on his side.

"It's real cool to go through all the rookie mistakes and errors together so we can learn from each other," Jenkins said. "We keep our spirits up by cracking jokes and laughing, so it's a good feel. We still have a long way to go though."

Perhaps, the Moss signature will be on its way, too.

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