The NFL draft was nearing its end when Bennie Jennings started preparing for a disappointment he knew all too well. His son Jauan Jennings was certainly worthy of selection after ending his University of Tennessee tenure on a high note. It was ultimately uncertain despite 969 receiving yards as a senior team captain.
Jauan Jennings’ stock was helped by an excellent 2019 campaign and a quality Senior Bowl week, but hindered some by a slow 40-yard dash at the combine. That created some doubt whether he’d get the honor of being drafted.
Bennie Jennings didn’t get that after an excellent career at the University of North Alabama, though the tight end now inducted into his school’s Hall of Fame got a chance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that ultimately didn’t work out.
While Bennie understands the NFL business and the benefits of choosing a destination as an undrafted free agent, fingers remained crossed Jauan would be chosen.
“We talked about the fact that, when I went through the process, I never heard my name called,” Bennie Jennings said. “As soon as the draft was over my phone blew up. That was exciting, but it’s a bit disheartening to sit through the whole process and never get picked when you really think you’re going to be.
“I kind of tried to prepare him for that, but when his name flashed across the screen and it was announced, it was just an awesome feeling.”
The 49ers selected the high-school quarterback turned standout receiver at No. 217 overall. Maybe the pick came later than everyone hoped, but it was still a moment worth savoring.
“It means everything. Since he has been able to pick up a ball playing professionally is all he has wanted to do,” Bennie Jennings said. “It’s an awesome thing to see his dream come true.”
Jennings joins the 49ers ready to battle for a roster spot, known as a receiver in the Deebo Samuel mold. He’s strong and aggressive and excellent gaining yards after the catch, with competitiveness rarely rivaled.
“I look at this offense and I see a receiver like Deebo Samuel -- I’ve known him since the SEC days,” Jauan Jennings said in a conference call after being drafted. “He’s a great receiver and he’s always had that dog, that gritty attitude that I’m going to bring as well. [Quarterback] Jimmy Garoppolo, you got him in the backfield throwing the rock. It’s just going to be hard to stop us in my mind. We’ve got a lot of weapons and I just can’t wait to go out there and help.”
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That 4.72-second 40-yard dash and speed in general is the primary knock held against him, one that has left NFL draft experts wondering if he’ll be able to separate at the professional level despite thriving in the SEC.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt took great exception to that criticism in a radio interview just before the draft.
“I don’t care what Jauan Jennings runs in the 40,” Pruitt said on 99.1-FM in Knoxville, Tenn. “I don’t care what he jumps on a vertical. All I know is throw him the ball. You want the ball in the guy’s hands. Wherever he gets drafted, he’s going to play and he’s going to be an impact on the team.”
Pruitt knows all about Jennings’ competitiveness and perseverance. Those traits were clear after he rebounded from a difficult 2017 season where he missed most games with a wrist injury and then got kicked off the team by an interim head coach and an athletic director no longer there following a critical video post that went viral.
Pruitt gave him a clean slate and a chance to reassert himself. Jauan Jennings took full advantage, something of which his father was particularly proud.
“I got to see a kid grown into a man,” Bennie Jennings said. “He just developed and matured over that year, and before that going into his senior year. He has matured even more during that season. As a parent that’s what you want to see. You want to see them make strides and take that next step into becoming a man. That’s what I saw, and I very proud of him for what he has done.”
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Bennie Jennings hopes his son can take the next step and establish an NFL career. Jennings didn’t latch on with the Buccaneers but quickly established a great and ongoing tenure in law enforcement. He has been in that field nearly 27 years now, currently working with the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s Criminal Investigation Division.
Bennie was a Tennessee prep legend with a football state title to his credit. Jauan was 2014’s Mr. Football in Tennessee but never won a championship in that sport, though he got one in basketball. Father and son were even competitive over such high-level accomplishments, but Bennie Jennings would love nothing more than to see his son go farther than him in the NFL.
“I played at a small school, which was Division II back then, and you really had a lot of overcome to make an NFL team back in those days,” Bennie Jennings said. “You’ll hear no excuses from me. The reason I didn’t make it is because of me. When I learned what I did right and what I did wrong, I’ve given him all those experiences so he can capitalize on that.”
They both have a competitive streak and plenty of confidence as athletes, and Jauan should be helped by his dad’s experience as he tries to thrive with the 49ers.
“We have the same attitude toward the game, but I think he’s more intense,” Bennie Jennings said. “That’s what I hope I have instilled in him over the years, is that you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. If you want it, you have to take it. Nobody’s going to give it. That’s just him, but that’s also just me.”