Wiedmer: Hail Mary against Georgia a thing of the past for Jauan Jennings

Wiedmer: Hail Mary against Georgia a thing of the past for Jauan Jennings

August 14th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) is focused on the future as the Vols prepare for a new season.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — It's 5:39 Sunday evening, and NBC television affiliate WBIR of Knoxville is wrapping up an interview with University of Tennessee junior wide receiver Jauan Jennings.

For more than an hour, Jennings has been surrounded by TV cameras, audio recorders and notebooks, most of them focused on The Catch — that still somewhat unbelievable Hail Mary touchdown grab Jennings made of a Josh Dobbs heave at the horn last season to shock Georgia 34-31 between its historic hedges.

But WBIR refreshingly went elsewhere with its questions, peppering the Murfreesboro native with everything from who's the funniest player on the team ("Shaq Wiggins") to the smartest ("Elliott Berry") to his favorite Knoxville eatery ("Popeye's").

And not a single time did the interview shift to last year's Georgia game.

"First time all day," Jennings said. "And that's good. That was like a year ago."

To most fans — of the Volunteers or otherwise — sports is often all about the past. That Hail Mary against Georgia. James Wilhoit's 50-yard field goal to beat Florida in 2004. The Vols' 1985 Sugar Bowl win over Miami.

But for Tennessee's Team 121 to make similar memories, it probably needs to spend more time on the future than the past. The exception is if that rearview thinking can keep the Vols from repeating the mistakes that cost them a very realistic opportunity to win the SEC East last season.

Perhaps that's why Jennings repeatedly answered questions about how often he watches The Catch these days with the following words: "Not much. We watch film of our practices. We've moved on to bigger and better days."

Judging by last season's statistics — 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns — they don't come much bigger and better than Jennings at his position. Listed at 6-foot-3 (he seems taller than that) and 209 pounds, Jennings was an All-Southeastern Conference third-team pick at the league's preseason media event last month. He has the ability to wind up a first-teamer by season's end.

"As long as you throw it in the same zip code, he'll catch it," Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady said of Jennings' skills.

And that's not all he can do. He's been known to run the ball on occasion, and at the close of the first half of last year's home game against Kentucky, the Blackman High School graduate was sent out as an extra defensive back. With the Vols guarding against a Hail Mary, Jennings intercepted the pass.

"Wherever Coach wants to put me, I'll go," he said with a smile, "and it was pretty fun getting that interception. But I'm not playing defense."

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Yet if he did, he wouldn't be the first gifted Tennessee receiver wearing No. 15 to make a difference on both sides of the ball. Carl Pickens earned Freshman All-America honors for his contributions at safety and was the defensive MVP of the 1990 Cotton Bowl.

Johnny Majors, the Vols' head coach at the time, said then that Pickens was "probably the most outstanding football talent I've had as far as all-round ability."

Current Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was similarly gushing about Jennings on Sunday.

"I think Jauan is ready to be a No. 1 receiver," he said. "He has grown by leaps and bounds in all aspects of his life. He used to be allergic to the weight room. Now he loves the weight room. I wouldn't trade him for anybody on game day."

Jennings certainly sounded worthy of those words when asked his goals for this season.

"I'm a competitive guy," he said. "I want nothing less than an SEC championship. Besides that, nothing."

Sitting a few feet away in the Vols' locker room at Neyland Stadium, senior defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. gave his assessment.

"Jauan loves to make plays," Kelly said. "And he gets mad when he doesn't. He's got that burning desire in his heart to succeed. He's got that dog-like mindset."

To that end, when asked during his TV interview what he liked best about football, Jennings replied, "I like to hit people."

But while his teammates cite his alpha dog leadership skills, Jennings referenced a different animal when asked to divulge a secret talent.

"I can ride a horse," he said, before adding with a wide smile, "fast."

If these Vols are to win that long elusive SEC championship, they might be wise to ride Jennings' considerable talents as much as possible in every zip code they play in this season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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