KNOXVILLE — At one point in time not so long ago Jauan Jennings’ name was not on Tennessee’s football roster.
Kicked off the team by interim coach Brady Hoke in November 2017 following a profanity-laced tirade because he wasn’t allowed to play, Jennings was in danger of never again putting on a Vol uniform.
Tennessee (0-1) ultimately hired Jeremy Pruitt to replace Hoke, and when it came time for Pruitt to decide whether Jennings would be allowed to return to the team Pruitt had his back.
Now it’s Jennings’ turn to return the favor.
Pruitt and his coaching staff have come under fire this week in the aftermath of the Vols’ season-opening loss to Georgia State that sent shock waves across the country and raised questions about whether Pruitt has the team headed in the right direction.
Jennings’ performance in the 38-30 loss at Neyland Stadium was the impossible to point a finger at as a reason for the setback. The wide receiver had a career-high seven receptions, and his 108 receiving yards were three below his career-high.
This week, however, Jennings took the blame. While speaking with the media in advance of Saturday’s 7 p.m. home game against BYU (0-1), the fifth-year senior said he could have done a better job making sure the team was energized.
“This team wasn’t juiced up on the sideline,” Jennings said. “As a leader I take full responsibility for that. I have to be out there and I have to be in their heads and their ears 24-7. As a leader I admit that I did not do that. From here on out that’s what I’m going to focus on doing is making sure this team knows we have a lot of fight left in us and we’re not going to give up.”
Not giving up on Jennings is one of the best moves Pruitt has made early in his Tennessee coaching tenure. The Blackman High School graduate flashed big-time talent during his first two seasons with the Vols, but after an injury cut short his junior year his lack of maturity rose to the surface.
Pruitt gave Jennings a list of things he needed to do if he wanted to get back on the team. After he did all of it Pruitt painted a picture of a dependable kid who had changed his ways and was ready to contribute.
After a while Jennings began to show his passion in positive ways, including his work ethic. These days, Pruitt said, Jennings loves to practice and that coaches usually have to slow him down. At one point Jennings wore a GPS tracker during practice to measure how many yards he ran, and he was over the target every day.
The Vols have a healthy number of leaders, and they all do it in different ways. Senior wide receiver Marquez Callaway, for instance, is quiet and leads by example.
Quiet was never in Jennings’ makeup so everybody always knows where he is and what he’s doing. Pruitt loves it.
“I’ve said it before, I wish you could coach a team full of guys like Jauan,” Pruitt said. “I’ve had the opportunity to coach a lot of really good players in my career, and guys that try to do it the right way, and Jauan is one of those guys.”
This week Jennings said he has focused on being one of the guys that keeps the energy high at all times. If the Vols do perform poorly against the Cougars the jeers from the fans may rise to levels never seen before on Rocky Top. Jennings said he saw the backlash after the loss to Georgia State and that it hurt because he knows how much the team matters to the fans.
It’s part of what motivates him to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“There is no way I can’t see (the criticism) because we have such a big fan base, Jennings said. “As a leader, yeah we did let our Vols fans down this weekend. We’re going to continue to get better and just hope that they’re going to have our back through it all.”