Jennings’ Role Now More Imperative Than Ever
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The transfer of Jovon Durante and the suspension of Marcus Simms for the season opener against Virginia Tech have led pundits to pinpoint Ka’Raun White as the rescuer of a depleted wideout corps.
We’re going taking a corollary track here. It’s not that White won’t be a key to the passing game. The senior caught 48 passes for 583 yards and five scores. That’s an average of 12.6 yards per catch, and is the most returning receptions, yardage and touchdowns on an offense which racked up 257 passing yards per outing, but also must replace three of its top four and five of its top seven receivers.
White will have help from a pair of wideouts, of course, though at times it seems only David Sills’ name is being bandied about. Perhaps it’s the 6-4 frame, or the receiver ability displayed before Sills transferred to El Camino Community College in California to give his dream of playing quarterback one final chance. It could be that game-winning Cactus Bowl catch that sticks in the minds of fans, or the fact that Sills accepted a scholarship to USC as a seventh grader in 2010.
Whatever the case, there’s a vastly overlooked player on West Virginia’s roster, one who caught 10 passes for a pair of touchdowns last season, while proving he has among the best hands on the team in handling 21 punt returns. And yet few are talking about – much less talking up – wide receiver Gary Jennings. As a junior, the Stafford, Va. native has two collegiate seasons of experience, playing in 26 career games and earning the first start of his career against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl to end last season.
Jennings has flashed speed, burst, versatility and sure-handedness over the two years, but never gained quite enough respect as an athlete or receiver. That he was constantly snowed under – take that literally and figuratively considering the botched punt catch versus Oklahoma – by defenders on the punt return didn’t help matters. But that wasn’t as much Jennings as the players in front of him, WVU’s punt return scheme and execution left wanting in finishing as the fifth-worst at the FBS level a season ago at a paltry 1.86 yards per return.
Jennings has reached the maturation point in his career, when players either blossom and become significant contributors, or wilt away onto the shelf of many a promising starter who morphed into a permanent reserve. Be it Jennings’ grit, intelligence, perseverance or raw ability, the former prep All-State all-purpose player seems to have what it takes in the tank to help fuel an offense long on potential but short on proven pass catchers.
“I think we are very close,” Jennings said of West Virginia elevating itself into a top-shelf offense. “We are meshing very well, jelling very well and we are not far away from very good.”
It’s not for nothing that receivers coach Tyron Carrier said last season that Jennings was his X-factor, the player who could do a bit of everything. He could man the slot, play on the outside, take quick screens and end arounds as needed and return punts and kickoffs. Jennings’ aptitude with the ball in his hands is as good as any Mountaineer wideout, and he showcased portions of that late last season. The prime example came in the home finale against Baylor, when Jennings lined up as the single receiver left, then beat his man inside.
WVU floated Justin Crawford into the flat to draw in the linebacker, and Jennings hit the hole between the two levels, giving quarterback Skyler Howard and easy target. Howard hit the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder in stride, and Jennings ran past two safeties for the 58-yard score, turning a 14-10 deficit late in the third quarter into a 17-14 lead – on a third-and-six play no less. That was a huge play, and was the start of building momentum for the Mountaineers, which went ahead by 10 two minutes later in holding on for the 24-21 win.
West Virginia must have that production from Jennings this season, and not just in rare circumstances. His time, and his opportunity, is now, especially considering the recent losses at the position.
Going through many of our progressions, many of our plays, I think the timing is going well and we have the chemistry going,” Jennings said. “From getting those looks in live situations and being able to work those two-minute drills and those four-minute drills, it helps us with different situations. We have everything working for us right now.”