Ex-Gilman star Jennings hopes to renew old success at U-Va.
By By Don Markus and The Baltimore Sun
Oct 11, 2013 | 6:53 PM
Coming out of Gilman two years ago, Darius Jennings drew comparisons to West Virginia star and fellow Baltimorean Tavon Austin for his physical stature and football accomplishments. After his first two seasons at Virginia, Jennings found himself next to former Cavalier stars Heath Miller and Herman Moore in the program's record books.
As he gets ready for a final college homecoming of sorts when Virginia plays Maryland in College Park on Saturday, the junior wide receiver is not worried about those he has been compared to — if he ever thought about them at all. There is a more pressing concern: how to find his way back into Virginia's starting lineup.
It seemed as though Jennings had done that when he caught seven passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in a 19-16 season-opening victory over Brigham Young. But in four subsquent games, three of them losses, the 5-11, 175-pound slot receiver has caught just seven passes for 45 yards. He had no receptions in last week's 48-27 home defeat to Ball State.
For Jennings, whose 68 receptions over his first two seasons are second only to Miller among Virginia pass catchers and first among receivers after their sophomore year, last week's game marked only the first time since the end of his freshman year and the fourth time overall he was shut out.
While not listed as a starter for the second straight week, Jennings is not giving up on the season, or his career in Charlottesville.
"You've just got to keep trucking, you just keep moving forward," Jennings said in an interview Wednesday. ""There might be some lows, you might have some bumps and some bruises, some other doubts. You just have to trust your ability and know that you're a playmaker out there. Things might not go your way all the time, but you have to keep fighting."
Jennings was among a number of upperclassmen on the team's struggling offense benched in the aftermath of a 14-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28. Cavaliers receivers dropped 10 passes, and Jennings was among the culprits.
"When things aren't going well, even if you're playing OK, you're still expected to do more," Jennings said. "That just comes with the territory. Things haven't been going well and you're supposed to show that you can get back on the right track. We've been having a great week of practice, guys are staying positive, and we just have to get back in the win column."
Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, a former wide receiver and quarterback at both Virginia and in the NFL, said Thursday that Jennings is "a good leader and a hard worker and not a selfish guy." Hagans said he expects the former Gilman star to emerge from his slump, along with the rest of the Cavaliers.
"I know eventually it will click. I know they want it and we want it," Hagans said. "I think a lot of it is confidence. The thing with receiver, it's like playing basketball: Once one shot goes in the basket, your confidence comes back."
London, the ACC Coach of the Year only two seasons ago who now could be fighting for his job, appreciates the attitude Jennings has taken despite the demotion.
"Darius is a fantastic young man and one of the leaders on our team," London said on the ACC coaches' teleconference Wednesday. "Last week, he returned a couple of kickoffs and did a real nice job. He's embraced that it's been about the team. He's hungry, and he wants to win and do it the right way."
Jennings said he didn't come to Virginia hoping to emulate Austin at West Virginia, and added that he had little in the way of expectations.
"I was just a runny-nosed freshman trying to get on the field," said Jennings, who chose Virginia over Wake Forest and Ohio State after being named the Baltimore Sun's Offensive Player of the Year and an Under Armour All-American.
While the transition from high school quarterback to college receiver was not seamless his freshman year, when he caught 20 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown, he appeared much more comfortable last season. Jennings had 48 receptions for 568 yards and five touchdowns in an otherwise disappointing 4-8 season for the Cavaliers.
Admittedly, Jennings still believes he is making the transition.
"Just making the whole transition, going from one level to the next, it was definitely tough for me," Jennings said. "I was diligent and I worked hard at it and I had some success my first two years. But to be honest, I still think I'm learning the position. It's not something I played my whole life. Even my freshman, I was more of an athlete [than a receiver]. I think I've taken some strides toward it, becoming a receiver. Unfortunately, things haven't shown on the field, but I feel more comfortable this year."
Said Hagans: "I think he's totally comfortable with the transition, I just think his performance isn't where he would like it. The next step for him is perfecting his craft and becoming more consistent"
Jennings isn't outwardly discouraged by the past two seasons, in which the Cavaliers won just six of 17 games. A sociology major with a minor in African-American studies, Jennings said he is happy in Charlottesville and understands the game with a more mature view.
"I don't think it's become harder, it's just a different perspective that I'm seeing," Jennings said. "Just being in a different position now as one of the older guys, and guys come to me to seek advice and see how I'm doing things and how I'm preparing. I guess it's not harder or easier, it's just a different role I have to play."