In Belated Praise Of WVU’s Gary Jennings
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Maybe it was our fault, and by ‘our’, I mean the media circus that follows West Virginia football.
Maybe we were negligent in giving Gary Jennings his due as a receiver while he was here.
Somehow, we just got caught up elsewhere … the media hype surrounding quarterback Will Grier commanding the No. 1 spotlight this year after the big season he had after transferring from Florida the season before.
And somehow there was such fascination with the David Sills V story, which is truly one of the great tales that any college football team can claim as theirs in recent years.
You know what we’re talking about here … a child prodigy quarterback who was offered a scholarship to USC almost before he was old enough to develop acne, a kid from Delaware whose father actually put together a school so he could build a football team around him.
And what a football team, Eastern Christian in Bear, Delaware, was; it sent a river of talent into WVU’s program with Sills and Daikiel Shorts and Wendell Smallwood and Kenny Bigelow, among others.
Sills came as a quarterback, accepted a move to wide receiver, left to give quarterbacking one final chance as it was his dream, then returned to become one of the nation’s top receivers, catching 33 touchdown passes in two years.
Those stories were devoured by our media, with Grier and Sills both likeable and agreeable interview subjects with something to say, young men who cared about the world around them rather than limiting their existence to within the football program which would send them someday off into the National Football League.
And so it was that Jennings operated in the shadow of them, respected as a clutch receiver and as a strong blocker and, just as importantly, as much as person as both Grier and Sills.
But there is only so much ink in a pen, so much time on a digital recorder and in this world of ours we tend to lean toward the touchdown heroes at the expense of those who are cast into supporting roles.
I, for one, am almost ashamed that I did not glean more out of Jennings than I did, for in 30 years covering Major League Baseball I came to realize that most of the best stories came not from the superstars but from the other players on the team … funny stories, warm stories woven by players who were a bit off-center.
You can go from Chico Ruiz of the Cincinnati Reds who wore alligator spikes and once, when an injury to a starter had him playing every day, went into the manager’s office and proclaimed “bench me or trade me,” one of the best lines ever in baseball.
Then, too, there was Al Ferrara, a Brooklyn-born outfielder who was traded to the Reds and in one of his early games circled unsteady under a routine fly ball before making a diving catch of it, then later would answer a question about his approach on the ball, “what’d ya expect for Angel Bravo, Willie Mays?”
The thing was, there was a wonderful story in Jennings in the fact that he would do whatever was asked of him and do as well as it could be done. Be an inside receiver, be an outside receiver.
Go deep, catch those third-and-8 passes right at the first down marker, cut off a linebacker to give room for Kennedy McKoy to make what should have been a 3-yard gain and turn it into a 16-yard gain.
His first season as a full-time player it was he — not teammate Sills — who led the team in receptions with 97, just three shy of becoming the Mountaineers’ fourth to reach the century mark.
The other three all played in the NFL, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Kevin White.
He also gained 1,096 yards in that junior season but somehow, and this became something of a burr under his saddle, took only one of the 97 receptions into the end zone.
It was something he set out to change this season and learned the lesson that Sills had known naturally and this past year, as a senior, he went from one touchdown to 13.
One of those, it turned out, was one of the greatest pass-and-catch plays in WVU history, a 33-yard strike from Grier to Jennings coming in WVU’s one-point, overtime victory over Texas.
“That was without a doubt the greatest pass I’ve seen in my life,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It’s a Heisman moment, is what it is.”
The play had problems from the start, the officials delaying the snap but once the snap came, Jennings just whizzed past a Texas double team, using speed that no one really knew he had until the Senior Bowl when he was the second-fastest among the players there.
Grier threw awkwardly off his back foot, a perfect pass near the back of the end zone that Jennings gathered in while managing to get one foot in for the score.
“I knew I could have gotten two down if I had to,” Jennings said. “But it was a matter of securing the catch and getting that one down.”
True, he caught far fewer passes — 54 — this year than last but he turned them into almost as many yards at 917. His average yards per catch jumped from 11.3 to 17.0.
And those numbers would have been far better had he not battled through a sprained ankle the last month of the season.
Yet, despite the ankle, which almost kept him out for much of the season’s most important game, Oklahoma, he found a way to play and had a career day with 225 receiving yards on just seven catches.
If not a media darling, Jennings was a player’s player and any athlete far rather have that laid upon him, for that is the “cred” any player strives for.
He skipped the Syracuse bowl travesty to let his ankle heal and it was a good thing, for he may he have been the surprise prospect at the Senior Bowl, capping it by joining Sills with each catching a touchdown pass.
Now, he and Sills seem to be the next in line of a group of receivers who have flowed from Morgantown to the NFL under Holgorsen and, you suspect, he won’t linger in anyone’s shadow any longer.