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Tennessee football coaches have pointed to wide receiver Jauan Jennings as an example of how to play. Jennings has shown an ability to frustrate opposing defensive backs — sometimes drawing penalties — and make athletic catches.
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Jauan Jennings (15) runs for yardage after a pass reception. The Ohio University Bobcats visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in a non-conference NCAA football game on Saturday September 17, 2016.

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KNOXVILLE — By his nature, Jauan Jennings is the kind of wide receiver who flirts with a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by mixing it up with an opposing defensive back 30 yards away from a running play.

Now the Tennessee sophomore is becoming just as likely to make big catches and score touchdowns.

Jennings was a key figure in the Volunteers' win against Florida this past Saturday. He showed both sides of his game by drawing a penalty on Gators cornerback Quincy Wilson after Tennessee's first snap and later catching three passes for 111 yards, including the go-ahead 67-yard touchdown against Florida star Jalen Tabor.

The former quarterback seemingly drew after-the-play penalties regularly as a freshman, but Tennessee's coaches have no intentions of reigning in that competitiveness, which should be on display again Saturday at Georgia.

"You don't risk it at all, because he's doing it within the whistle," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said Wednesday. "He's been playing smart that way. I will say this: We talk about it as coaches the next day and we talked to our players about it on Monday when they came into the meetings and we showed them: Look how Jauan Jennings frustrated them.

"We showed the plays of him blocking. Then we show the touchdown pass. First of all, that corner didn't know if he's coming to block him or what, so he's a little bit hesitant and he ran by him. Jauan set that up himself. Nobody else set that up. No coach or anything else — Jauan Jennings set that up by the way he had played all game. He gets after you."

Preston Williams was anointed the expected breakout sophomore star for Tennessee's offense, but so far Jennings is earning the label after catching nine passes for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first four games this season. That's despite uncertainty about Jennings after he had knee surgery in April.

The former standout at Murfreesboro's Blackman High School came to Tennessee as a quarterback, but he lasted only one round of spring practice his freshman year before switching to wide receiver to learn a new position on the fly. Jennings caught 14 passes for 149 yards in 2015, but he also played on the kickoff coverage unit and seemed to mix it up with defensive backs away and after the play on a regular basis.

"Jauan is a dog. That's what I call him," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. "Point blank, he's a dog — anything he does, it doesn't matter what it is. There's a basketball goal in our team meeting room, and he'll want to play anybody in one-on-one or play H.O.R.S.E. with them, and he makes sure that he wins. And if he doesn't, he's dissatisfied.

"That transfers over to in between the lines. He just always tries to play his best and plays for his teammates. Before the game he looked me in my eyes and he said, 'This is a big game for you and for me and we have to get it done for our state,' and that's what we did. He takes pride in the game of football and he really loves it."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones this week called Jennings "as great of a competitor" as he's coached. That was on display when he went up to catch a jump ball for a touchdown against Virginia Tech and jumped over Alex Anzalone to pluck a pass off the Florida linebacker's back.

"That's just how he's always been since he's gotten here — very competitive (and) wants the ball," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "You throw the ball anywhere in his vicinity, you know he's going to go up, compete and he's going to want the ball at the end of the day.

"You see it on his touchdown in the Virginia Tech game and one of his catches this weekend where he jumped over a dude's back — crazy stuff. That's just his mindset, and he definitely brings a toughness to the offensive side of the ball."

Offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman said the Vols know what to expect from Jennings and have fun watching him on film "fight every single snap," and as he continues to improve as a wide receiver he'll become an even greater focal point for Tennessee's offense.

"We definitely saw a glimpse of it last year," Dobbs said, "and he definitely put in the time and the work, working on his stance and start, his footwork and his releases during the offseason. He really won us the game when you look back at it this week. To see his progression and see how he's grown, that's just a testament to him and he'll continue to grow and continue to (play) a big role for us."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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