KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee receiver Jauan Jennings wants the ball in his hands every play.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder craves the adrenaline rush, the intensity that only those who have toted a football with defenders in pursuit can fully understand.
When Tennessee throws the ball in Jennings’ direction, coaches, teammates, opponents and fans know that No. 15 will be as athletic or physical as needed to come down with the catch.
It’s learning how to stay focused and handle the situation when his number isn’t called that has been the biggest adjustment for Jennings.
“Yeah, it was kind of hard not playing quarterback at first,” said Jennings, who as 4-star, dual-threat QB at Murfreesboro’s Blackman High School had offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, Penn State, Duke, Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, among others.
“So now I take that anger out blocking as a receiver, or on special teams,” he said. “The ball won’t be in my hands, but I can still be physical, and that’s the standard I hold myself to.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones, a former receivers coach and receiver himself, loves Jennings’ attitude and approach to the game.
“Our offense completely feeds off him,” Jones said last season. “He’s as great a competitor as we have on our football team … as great a competitor as anyone I’ve been around.”
Vols senior safety Todd Kelly Jr., who’s battled Jennings in practices daily the last three seasons, agreed.
“Jauan is a just a beast [who] just goes out there and goes hard,” Kelly said. “If Jauan says he’s gonna do something, he’ll do it.”
“Jauan, we just call him a dog,” former Tennessee lineman Dylan Wiesman said. “He goes out there and he fights every single snap, gives you 110 percent every play. You put the film on and watch.”
Vols fans have put the film on and watched replays of Jennings’ greatness over and over this offseason, from his 67-yard go-ahead TD catch against Florida to his Hail Mary grab that beat Georgia.
Jennings’ first heroic moment in 2016 came in Week 2, an acrobatic catch in the end zone to spark Tennessee’s rally in a 45-24 win against Virginia Tech.
Jennings’ catch against the Hokies prompted what ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said was “the first ounce of emotion” from the Vols last season.
Florida was next on Jennings’ 2016 hit list, the Gators having filled the Vols offense with talk and taunts.
Jennings put a move on departed Gators’ cornerback Jalen Tabor en route to a 67-yard go-ahead touchdown as the Vols rallied from 21-3 down at the half to a 38-28 victory.
“That play right there was a result of their talk — I never talk before games, because what’s the point?” Jennings said. “That game was a statement game after hearing we were the worst receivers they had played against, so that was personal.
“Not just me, but for the eight receivers next to me that worked their butts off. So it was time to come play.”
Jauan Jennings’ oil painting moment
Jennings outdid himself the next week. His leaping grab on the final play of a 34-31 win at Georgia was the stuff of oil paintings and framed art.
When did Jennings know he was going to come down with the Josh Dobbs’ pass that sailed 55 yards through the air to reach the end zone?
“As soon as they called the play in the huddle,” Jennings said after the game, flashing his playful smile, confident as ever.
Dobbs later shrugged, “It was my job on that play to give Jauan a chance, and that’s all he ever really needs.”
Jennings, in the midst of a celebratory postgame news conference, said his favorite play was the one the week before against Florida.
Jennings recently explained why he wasn’t joking when he made the remark.
“A lot of people bring up that Georgia play, but that was a backyard play,” Jennings said. “That play just came from experience, growing up with the kids in the neighborhood, you always want to see who can out-jump one another. I knew if I got a clean jump, I’d make that catch.
“So, I like to think more about winning 1-on-1 matchups, technique, not just a jump ball.”
Tennessee Volunteers’ 2017 quarterback situation
Ask Jennings about the Vols’ current quarterback situation, and it’s quickly apparent he doesn’t care who is behind center.
Whether it’s junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, Jennings will be catching passes from someone with little or no college experience in 2017. This after two seasons of playing with Dobbs, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Tennessee history.
“We have two different styles of quarterbacks, they both can play. I just need the ball thrown to me and I’ll come down with it,” Jennings said. “I can’t wait to block for [running back] John Kelly. It’s a great feeling when you know you got someone in the backfield that will give his all. He gives his all for me, too.
“Then you got our tight ends coach, he’s now the offensive coordinator, and I know he’s gonna make sure we take care of the ball, and he’s gonna take care of us as players,” Jennings said. “We all have relationships with each other, and we’ll be out there getting together in fall practice, allowing the coaches to figure it out on the field.”
Jennings is at peace with the coaching staff, trusting in the system, and welcoming the teachings of new receivers coach Kevin Beard.
“It’s been great, KB brings another level to the game as a coach, he’s not only going to talk you through it, he will put his cleats on and walk you through it,” Jennings said.
“That’s something unique hat other players in the country don’t get to see,” he said. “Coach Beard understands. He’s been where I’m at — he was a receiver just like me. So to have a guy [who] relates so much, it helps.”
Lesson learned — the hard way
Jennings, who just turned 20 years old earlier this month, admits he has made his mistakes.
Much of that is due to, of course, the fact that when you are a football player at the University of Tennessee, there’s another level — a very public level — of accountability.
Jennings said it finally sunk in when he saw his parents’ name mentioned in the story about his arrest on a misdemeanor drug charge in January.
“I represent so much, and that hit me when that article had my parents’ name[s] in it,” Jennings said solemnly. “This year is my junior year, it can make or break my career, so I’ve been so much more focused taking care of school, taking care of my business, because I know now what I represent and what this year means to the team.”
Jennings focused his offseason energy into the weight room and voluntary team workouts, bringing a level of excitement to the locker room that has the Vols’ offense ready to storm the field.
Jauan Jennings setting the tone for 2017
Jennings senses how things have changed for him in the locker room.
“I definitely feel it, every time I come in the weight room or locker room, there’s eyes on you, those questions are coming at you,” said Jennings, suddenly surrounded by inexperienced freshmen and sophomore receivers. “It actually helps me take care of my responsibilities and make sure I stay up on my plays.”
Kelly, who battled Jennings in the team’s 7-on-7 workouts this summer, has noticed a difference.
“Jauan is a very confident person, and he works hard to back it up, people don’t see that part,” Kelly said. “I think he’s becoming more of vocal guy, and I think that’s huge, because I think the receivers need a leader in that group.
“He’s a great guy, and we’ll all look to him, really.”
Cincinnati Bengals rookie Josh Malone, last season’s leader in the Tennessee wide receivers room, has confidence Jennings will set the pace.
“What I expect from Jauan is for him to keep improving from last year and stay focused,” Malone said. “Seeing him grow as a wide receiver, making the transition from quarterback, he came a long way.
“Jauan doesn’t need to reign it in, just keep playing aggressive, that’s his game, all out,” Malone said. “That’s his swag, that’s the chip on his shoulder, the physicality, and how he goes after it and also how he attacks the ball.”
Ultimately, Jennings said, football is a game of carrying out assignments one snap at a time.
“It’s all about playing your role,” Jennings said, “and playing your best for the team.”