Salute to Jauan Jennings

Jauan Jennings’ journey into the hearts of Vols fans began as just one of a group of highly-touted recruits in the 2015 class that ranked No. 4 in the nation. We see a handful of guys like this every year. They arrive on campus with great fanfare and promise, but whether their high school success translates to success in college is yet to be determined. Some never pan out, while some prove they belong. A few of them have special moments that make great memories, and a handful do so often enough that they become stars.

And every once in a while, one of them becomes a legend.

Act I

Although he was part of a recruiting class absolutely loaded with blue-chippers, it didn’t take long for Jennings to prove he belonged, even as a freshman on a team full of well-established playmakers:

Those were the days when Jennings was merely a sidekick, getting his feet wet in a supporting role to guys like Josh Dobbs. But he wouldn’t remain in a supporting role for long.

As a sophomore in 2016, Jennings played a starring role in a pair of plays against bitter rivals on consecutive weeks, iconic moments that immediately etched themselves forever into the minds of Vols fans: a losing-streak-busting, turning-point touchdown against Florida in the fourth game of the season, and a Hollywood-ending Hail Mary against Georgia in the fifth.

Florida, 2016: The Move

By Jennings’ sophomore season in 2016, Florida owned an 11-year winning streak over the Vols, and in an orange-and-white-checkered Neyland Stadium, the streak looked certain to extend to 12 as the Gators led 21-3 at halftime. But in the third quarter, Dobbs made it a game with two touchdown throws, one to running back Jalen Hurd and another to tight end Ethan Wolf, cutting the lead to 21-17.

But they were still behind and hadn’t yet gotten over the hump against the Gators. That is, until Jennings willed them past the tipping point: (video should start automatically at 3:02; stop it at 3:30)

That wasn’t just a go-ahead touchdown, it was brilliance with a backstory, as Jennings was so wide open because he put a move on mouthy defensive back Teez Tabor that got Tabor turned around and put him on the ground. Jennings bobbled the ball while tight-roping the sideline but hauled it in, stayed in bounds, and raced 67 yards to a Vols touchdown and a lead over Florida they wouldn’t relinquish.

That may have cemented all by itself Jennings’ reputation in Knoxville as one of Tennessee’s stars, but he would outdo himself the following week against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia, 2016: The Catch

Sometimes a surprise twist ending can entirely overwhelm a really good drama, and that’s exactly what happened against Georgia the following week. The game started with the Bulldogs getting out to a 17-0 lead. Josh Dobbs managed a late first-half touchdown to make it 17-7, but the Bulldogs were in control. The teams traded scores in the third quarter, and then Tennessee scored another TD early in the fourth quarter to make it 24-21, Bulldogs.

And that’s when the drama started coming in waves, and when Jauan Jennings had the last word.

With Georgia pinned back deep due to an excellent punt, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett sacked quarterback Jacob Eason, causing him to fumble in his own end zone, and Corey Vereen fell on it. Suddenly, the Vols were up 28-24 with less than three minutes to go. Tennessee appeared to seal it with an interception on Georgia’s next drive, but then had to punt, giving the ball back to Georgia with a minute left. They moved the ball on three consecutive plays but were still 47 yards away from a needed touchdown and only had 10 seconds left to do it.

They did it.

And then they celebrated like they’d won the game and got a 15-yard penalty for doing so. After Evan Berry returned the kickoff 20 yards, the Vols had the ball back on the 43-yard line with 4 seconds to go.

Enter Jennings:

If you don’t yet have a full appreciation for that sequence of events, try this:

I’m a soft-spoken, generally reserved guy, but when that happened, I, too, ran out onto my front porch and yelled like the house was on fire. My neighbor across the street was doing the same thing. Thank you, Jauan.

Act II

That’s only Act I in the Jauan Jennings Story, though. In 2017, Jennings dislocated his wrist in the first game of the year against Georgia Tech, and the injury derailed his entire season. Jennings caught a lot of criticism for the way he handled the injury, as he reportedly made himself scarce, at practice and at games. He says now that he just wanted to play so badly that he couldn’t stand to be relegated to the sideline. If you’re skeptical of that, you’re not alone. From a distance, it seemed like hogwash, but I’ve seen enough videos of this guy after the fact, talking about it with tears in his eyes, to believe it now. The guy has a passion for football and his teammates that some of us just can’t fathom.

Apparently, the motivating force through his rehab that season was an intense desire to get back onto the field. He says he was told by the coaching staff that he could play in the final game against Vanderbilt if he got himself ready by then, so that was the goal he worked toward. It was plenty of motivation, because Jennings — a Murfreesboro native — has a special disdain for Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, though, the 2017 team was going down the toilet. They started 3-1, but four consecutive losses, a meaningless win over Southern Miss, and another loss led to head coach Butch Jones getting fired. The team then lost to LSU under interim head coach Brady Hoke, and all they had left was one last game against Vanderbilt.

Jennings wanted to play against his favorite foe. He expected to play because he was told that he could. But the interim staff said he could not. Jennings lost his mind, and he did it on Instagram.

I normally wouldn’t even link to that video for a variety of reasons, but I do it here because it’s important for the contrast I’m about to draw. If you decide to watch it, you have to promise me that you’ll also watch all of the rest of the videos below.

That ill-advised public act of insubordination that brought additional negative publicity to the institution unsurprisingly resulted in Jennings’ dismissal from the football program. The dismissal itself wasn’t really a surprise, but the circumstances were certainly odd. The decision to dismiss Jennings was made by an interim coach and supported by an athletic director who himself would be fired shortly thereafter for other reasons.

After he’d cooled down and realized the consequences of what he’d done, Jennings apologized:

Yeah, he’s reading a statement. And yeah, it may have been written by someone else. But those tears signal one of two things: Either he meant what he said, or he wanted so desperately to play for Tennessee again that he would take it all back even though it was true. Either one of those interpretations is that Jennings was giving his all for Tennessee.

Shortly after that, Tennessee’s administration hired Phillip Fulmer as athletic director, and Fulmer hired Jeremy Pruitt as head coach, after a widely-reported and extremely embarrassing coaching search by the prior administration.

Act III

Pruitt had multiple issues to address when he arrived on campus, and one of them was to figure out what to do about Jauan. After asking around and getting green lights from people he trusted, he decided to let Jennings back on the team on the condition that Jennings had to do everything right and, more specifically, had to avoid doing anything that would embarrass the coach or the school.

Pruitt essentially put Jennings on a short leash. Here’s Jennings getting used to it back in 2018:

When you put a short leash on a fiery guy like Jennings, it generally goes one of two ways. Often, the guy builds up a gradual resentment toward the constant tug of the leash and, when adversity comes, he throws it off and blows his second chance. The other most common way it plays out is that the guy is essentially neutered into submission, and although he achieves compliance, he also loses the spirit that drives him to excel.

Jennings, though, Kobayashi-Marued that thing. He didn’t have to tame and domesticate his monster in order to control it. He just alpha-rolled it, wrestling it into submission to his better will. After all, it’s what Jauan Jennings does; he fights, and he wins.

This new Jennings continued to be tested, battered, and perfected by relentless adversity throughout the 2018 season and into 2019. Last year ended with a 5-7 record and an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt, of all teams. And then the 2019 season kicked off with humiliation heaped on humiliation when the team lost as a heavy favorite to Georgia State despite heightened expectations heading into the season.

But all of this merely set the stage for the next iteration of Jauan Jennings. Now that he had control of his monster, he was going to use it (video starts at 3:39; stop it at 4:20):

The fire didn’t catch and spread right away, but by the fifth game of the season, any fan could tell that this team was different and that it was different largely because it started looking more like Jauan across the board. The players would not let any one thing put them on the ground, and when you did bring friends, they would fall forward and be the first ones up.

In other words, they would not be denied (video starts at 0:58, watch all the way through):

This one starts at 1:34; stop it at 2:12:

This one starts at 5:50; stop it at 6:10:

Legendary Tennessee linebacker Al Wilson was the engine that drove the Vols’ 1998 team to the national championship. It will be some time before the jury returns with a verdict on the question of whether the Tennessee program has finally reclaimed its rightful place in the SEC hierarchy, but if it happens soon, I have no doubt that we’ll look back on this particular time and say that it was Jauan Jennings who finally willed this giant truck out of the ditch.

I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Because as much as I’ve enjoyed watching Jauan play, I am thrilled at how he’s done it. It’s one thing to alpha-roll your opponents, but the elite learn to alpha-roll the enemy within, and few have done it as effectively as Jauan Jennings.

Jennings has one game left to play as a Tennessee Volunteer in Neyland Stadium. It’s fitting that it’s against Vanderbilt.

Go Jauan. Go Vols.

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Sam Hensley
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Sam Hensley

Excellent article, but Jennings has one game left to play as a volunteer, plus a bowl game. Jauan is one of my favorite Vols of all time. For sure.