Jauan Jennings knows what it feels like to be the hero. He also knows what it feels like to watch nearly an entire season helplessly from the sideline.
Long-removed from his miracle Hail Mary catch in the end zone against Georgia in 2016, Jennings heads into this season with a chip on his shoulder — much like he has throughout his entire career.
After dealing with nagging injuries that plagued him for the last two seasons, the Murfreesboro, Tennessee native is ready to reassert his alpha status amongst the top receivers in the SEC, and he’s not afraid to let anyone know about it.
“I’m the alpha male anywhere I go,” Jennings said. “I feel good, way better since surgery. I am feeling a whole lot better.”
Despite appearing in all 12 games last year, Jennings recorded just 30 receptions for 438 yards and three touchdowns, a far cry from his 580-yard, seven-touchdown campaign in 2016.
The only difference is last season, he wasn’t healthy. Barring any drastic mishaps, he’ll be 100 percent or near it come Aug. 31.
He’s ready to let the person lined up across from him know about it as well.
“There is going to be some trash talking out there, but that is what players do,” Jennings said. “I love it. It is just another motivator.”
Known for his confidence and swagger both on and off the field, Jennings is taking a more cerebral approach in his final collegiate season, mentoring the young receivers while still relishing in his opportunities.
Gone is the player that took to Instagram to criticize an inept coaching staff. Gone is the player that was cited for simple possession.
Enter Jennings the leader, the teammate and the kid who fell in love with the game of football at a young age, living out his dream.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coaching staff either, particularly for wide receivers coach Tee Martin, who lauded Jennings’ maturity and willingness to take the next step during fall camp.
“He's turning the corner, and it’s something he focused on in spring,” Martin said. “He was one of those receivers that really wanted to get the ball and was a little emotional at times.”
While that emotion was what earned Jennings his status as one of the conference’s most physical receivers, it didn’t always translate to success on the field.
That’s why he’s been working tirelessly to correct it, and according to Martin, Jennings has turned the corner and is becoming as strong of a leader as the offense has seen since Joshua Dobbs was under center.
“He’s doing everything that we are asking him to do,” Martin said. “It’s his last year, and I think he understands the importance of him having a good season.”
For head coach Jeremy Pruitt, coming to Tennessee meant adapting to a new situation. He would no longer be contending for national championships every season, and he was well-aware of that reality.
Along with that came mending the fences between Jennings and the athletic department, as their relationship had soured in the months leading up to the dismissal of Butch Jones and the hiring of Pruitt.
UT fans remember Jennings’ infamous rant on social media, but what they didn’t know was that they hadn’t seen the last of him — and for good reason: His love and passion for the game is unrivaled, and his coach took notice of that.
“(Jauan) doesn’t like it, he loves it. He loves football; he loves the University of Tennessee,” Pruitt said. “He likes to practice, he likes to play, he likes to be in the building. You love coaching guys like Jauan.”
Whether Jennings is remembered as a physically-gifted receiver who made the most of his opportunities or as the trash-talking emotional anchor that wasn’t afraid to let you know how good he was, there is no doubt he’s left his mark on Tennessee football.
And as he rides off into the sunset following UT’s final game of the year, the only question left will be where no. 15 ranks amongst the Vols’ most memorable threats on the outside.