It’s been a long road back to football for Jauan Jennings. But now he’s back on the field, and he’s thankful for his second chance.
“I was hoping and praying I would get a chance,” Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings said last week while meeting with the media.
Jennings was coming off a dominating performance against then-ranked No. 21 Auburn. The fan-favorite had caught five passes for 71 yards and a 25-yard touchdown that gave Tennessee the lead for good.
10 months earlier, Jennings had been kicked off the team by interim head coach Brady Hoke and athletic director John Currie for posting a profanity-laced video on Instagram. He called Hoke and the coaching staff “snakes” and asked for the University to “send us a great-(expletive) coaching staff.”
“It made me who I am today,” Jennings said of the whole experience. “I learned a lot.”
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The Murfreesboro native could have packed his bags and left for elsewhere. But Jennings chose to stay in Knoxville and do anything and everything in his power to get back on the team.
“I didn’t think about going to play anywhere else. I was just focused on getting back on the team,” Jennings said. “My priority was not going anywhere else.”
With Phillip Fulmer taking over as athletic director and Jeremy Pruitt hired as the Vols’ new head football coach, Jennings was awarded the second chance he hoped and prayed for. Fulmer and Pruitt both laid out a long, strenuous checklist that Jennings would have to complete in order to earn his way back on the team.
He checked that list off with ease, and to say he’s taken advantage of his second chance is an understatement.
Jennings has thrived under the watchful eye of Fulmer and within the new culture Pruitt has instilled. He started his redshirt junior year with just six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in the first three games this season. But in the last four games, he’s combined for 17 catches, 250 yards, and a touchdown.
“He’s done everything that I’ve asked him to do since I’ve been here,” Pruitt said of Jennings. “He’s one of my favorite guys. The guy competes, works hard. He loves the University of Tennessee and has a passion for it.”
As for Jennings, he’s just grateful to be back out on Shields-Watkins Field in Neyland Stadium.
“I’m just thankful,” Jennings said. “Getting that second chance to come back. It means so much.”
Following his standout performance against the Tigers two weeks ago, Jennings turned around and caught six passes for 102 yards against No. 1 Alabama. He’s the first player all season to have a 100-yard receiving game against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense, and that was his first 100-yard game since the Vols’ win over Florida in 2016.
“I thought it was alright,” Jennings said of his performance. “Always areas to improve, but gotta get better and get ready for this weekend.
“Just going out there and playing football, running your route as fast as you can and when the ball comes your way, just make the catch. That’s all it’s been.”
Jennings has been a constant target for redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano on third down this season. Against Auburn, Guarantano targeted Jennings five times, connecting for a first down on four of the five third down targets. Eight of Jennings’ last 11 catches have resulted in a first down.
“Any down is my down, and I feel like that’s a mentality all of our players have,” Jennings stated. “Like I said, you just have to run fast and when one comes your way, you gotta make the play.”
He isn’t wrong. No. 15 has been a reliable target for Guarantano on any down and in any situation this season. Along with the third down success against the Tigers, Jennings was targeted once on a deep shot and hauled in a touchdown. He’s also been used as a key run-blocker on the perimeter and on crucial tunnel screens.
Against Alabama, though, Jennings’ hauled in the majority of his passes from a different quarterback. Grad transfer Keller Chryst was thrust into the midst of a 51-28 blowout loss after Guarantano went down with a rib injury in the second quarter. Chryst shined given the circumstance, throwing for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 9-of-15 passing.
“It’s not too different,” Jennings said when asked if it’s different working with either quarterback. “We call the same plays.
“He (Chryst) stepped up. Big situation there for anyone, and he played to the best of his abilities. That’s all we can ask for.”
Guarantano left the game after taking a shot from Alabama’s Mack Wilson on a long completion to Josh Palmer down the sideline in the second quarter. He finished 5-of-10 on the day for 63 yards before a trip to the hospital for more evaluations.
“Jarrett, he’s fine,” Jennings said. “He’s gonna fight and continue to fight just like everybody is going to do on this team.”
Regardless of who’s at quarterback this weekend, the Vols will need Guarantano or Chryst to have a big game against South Carolina. A trip to a bowl game is likely on the line for Tennessee.
Since 2012, the last six meetings between Tennessee and South Carolina have been decided by one possession, with the average margin of victory being 3.3 points. A win would give Tennessee two SEC road wins in the same season for just the third time in the last decade.
“They (South Carolina) have a good football team, and we have a good football team,” Jennings said. “We both have good coaches, and we’re just gonna have to play the game and see who wins.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET inside South Carolina’s William-Brice Stadium. Will Muschamp is 12-6 at home during his tenure with the Gamecocks and is undefeated against Tennessee in his coaching career.
Tennessee will be walking into a hornet’s nest on Saturday night.
As for Jennings, he won’t be phased by the atmosphere.
“It’s always fun to play football,” Jennings stated. “Road game, anywhere you go, it’s a 100-yard football field. It’s a great environment to go on the road and play football. It’s always great to play football. It’ll be a great challenge.
“We’re just getting ready for it, and I can’t wait for the weekend.”
Part of Jennings’ excitement stems from being able to see his sister, Alexis Jennings, who is a basketball player for South Carolina. He doesn’t exactly know who she’ll root for, but he has an idea.
“It’ll probably be half way,” Jennings said of his sisters’ rooting interesting. “But at the end of the day, family comes first.
“She always roots for her brother.”
Then again, who can’t root for Jennings after everything he’s overcome?