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Answering the questions


More than 300 prospects left Indianapolis earlier this week following the annual NFL Scouting Combine, and each returned home with his own thoughts on his upcoming professional career.

Three days of intense interviews and on-field work helped many NFL scouting and coaching personnel shape their opinions of the players. Because teams never want to tip their hand, it's impossible for any player to really know where they stand as they await the draft in April.

No one can testify more to the thoughts of players in that situation than Jaguars running Rashad Jennings. Jennings displayed his skills at last year's combine and left with talk of being selected as high as the second round. He ran a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, good for a 235-pound running back, and felt a good vibe from the teams he met with during the week.

Things didn't go as planned in April, but he looks back at it as a blessing in disguise. Jennings was still on the board for the Jaguars in the seventh round and the club scooped him up. At the time, Jennings was upset with what had transpired, but over time realized it could be the perfect situation for him.

Jennings remembers the combine experience as a "rollercoaster of emotions." He would hear the whispers when he walked by in the hotel lobby, coaches and scouts pointing him out. The so-called experts projected him as first-day pick or a sleeper late in the draft.

He would stop and say to himself, "What is everybody thinking?"

"That's the hardest part, standing around and not doing anything, wondering what everybody in this room is thinking about you," Jennings said. "Did I do something wrong? Are they thinking this now? You just don't know."

Jennings, who revealed a mature and steady disposition during his rookie season, enjoyed the interview process with the various teams. He spent the time answering questions about himself and giving insight into the one thing everybody wanted to know:

Why would he leave the University of Pittsburgh after playing in eight games as a freshman, and transfer to Division I-A Liberty? All the scouting reports raved about Jennings, but the negative was always, "he played against a lower level of competition."

This was an easy question to answer for Jennings. His father, Albert, lost a leg to diabetes and Jennings wanted to do his part around the house in Lynchburg, Virginia. His mother, Deborah, was working two jobs to make ends meet and playing close to home gave his parents a welcome respite.

"It was a decision I had to make between staying at Pitt and finishing my college career or going home and help take care of the house," Jennings said. "I still could accomplish everything I ever wanted. I went to college to get a double-major and get an opportunity to play at the next level. I saw that I could attend Liberty and still accomplish that."

That's an understatement. Jennings rushed for a Big-South Conference record 3,633 yards with 42 touchdowns in 31 games, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior and conference player of the year honors as a junior. He set a conference record with 22 100-yard rushing games including 10 as a senior.

The questions were answered, at least in his mind. He entered the draft with no regrets about his decision because all he wanted was an "opportunity" and he received that close to home.

"Obviously if you're looking at it from a different aspect, that this guy is not even serious about football, he transferred to take care of home," Jennings said. "That's bogus to me. This is my family. Some people looked at it as good and some looked at it as bad. That is not my decision to make. All I can do is tell the truth."

The questions didn't faze him. He is a humble person who doesn't try to attract attention. He heard people try to rationalize his rushing numbers, speculating the results if he would have stayed at Pitt or attended Ohio State.

The two days of the draft was an experience Jennings would rather forget. His phone started to ring non-stop during the fourth and fifth rounds, with teams calling to get his services as a free agent.

"Obviously that is frustrating to hear," Jennings said. "In my mind, I'm thinking at the time I have to find the best fit for me as a free agent."

Things suddenly changed when the phone rang from an area code with which he was unfamiliar; a representative from the Jaguars was on the other end. He brushed it off as another team calling to inquire about his services as a free agent. The Jaguars had different plans, though; they were going to select him with the 250th overall pick.

"Then I looked up at the screen and saw my name come across," Jennings said. "I had all kinds of emotions. I had all these coaches calling me telling me they would love to have me in free agency and I'm thinking there is still six more picks. I was sitting there looking at the screen with an open mouth. After I got off the phone, after the whole day of frustration, all the years of training and the sacrifices, I hugged my mom, dad and brothers. They said, 'Here's your opportunity.' That is all I ever asked for."

Jennings already knew a little about the Jaguars after being coached by the staff at the Senior Bowl. Plus, he spent two months prior to the draft in Miami living with veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew as they trained at Perfect Competition with other NFL players and prospects.

The two running backs shared the same agent and had many conversations leading up to the draft about where they thought Jennings would be selected. Jones-Drew didn't even mention the Jaguars as a possibility, thinking his protégé would go much higher. When Jones-Drew heard the Jaguars' selection of Jennings, he picked up the phone and called his new teammate.

"He said, 'I don't know what happened but let's go,'" Jennings said.

Jennings impressed the coaching staff immediately during mini-camp and the organized team activities (OTAs) without pads. Running backs coach Kennedy Pola, now with Tennessee, spent a lot of time with Jennings in the classroom.

The club was looking for a complement to Jones-Drew in the running game after the franchise's all-time leading rusher, Fred Taylor, was released in the offseason. The team decided against bringing in a veteran, instead holding out hope that Jennings would be their guy.

Jennings won the backup job and finished his rookie season with 39 carries for 202 yards and one touchdown, along with 16 receptions for 101 yards. His rookie year was highlighted by a career-long 28-yard touchdown run against Kansas City and a team-high 53 yards on nine carries against Tennessee in week four.

The game began to slow down for Jennings as the season progressed, and his growing confidence showed on the field. He admits he watched tape in college but nothing to the extent of a typical week in the NFL.

"I didn't know how to watch it," Jennings said. "I just watched it and saw people running around. Now when I watch film, it's beyond just watching it. I'm seeing so much that is happening, with what the coordinator's tendencies are to the technique of an opposing player."

Jennings leaned on the other running backs and veteran players such as wide receiver Torry Holt for advice.

"I asked everybody questions," Jennings said. "Torry Holt always took time to talk with me about anything and everything. I learned a lot from him. Sometimes teaching comes with motivation. Those guys made it clear to me that I need to be in the film room even more. A lot of guys act like they know everything and I'm here to tell you I don't know everything. Teach me."

Head coach Jack Del Rio has already hinted this offseason about an increased role for Jennings in 2010. A two-headed running attack has proven to be a successful trend in the NFL.

"I believe that. It's my job to keep on earning the trust of everybody," Jennings said. "That lies on my shoulders. It's up to me day-in and day-out to prove we have that here in Jacksonville. It starts with offseason training, continuing to build on what we built. It's up to me and I think we can definitely do that."

There is no doubt that Jones-Drew can carry the load as he finished a Pro Bowl season with 1,300-plus yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in his first stint as the starter. But it's important to have another back in the fold, evidenced by the fact the Jaguars have had six postseason appearances in 15 seasons and the club had two backs with at least 500 rushing yards in five of those seasons.

The running back duo of Taylor and Jones-Drew in 2006 got within 59 yards of becoming only the fifth duo in NFL history to each have 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Six of the last eight Super Bowl champions have employed a system in which two running backs have at least 500 rushing yards, including the last four winners.

"I'm a change-of-pace guy," Jennings said. "That's what you have to be. I always think the guy that comes in second has to be the fire. He has to come in and give a spark and do something special. I definitely think that's who I am."

Looking back on the process of finally landing in Jacksonville, Jennings appreciates where he came from and he looks forward to the future.

"I'm so thrilled that I got an opportunity to come play," Jennings said. "I'm glad that Gene Smith thought enough of me to pull the trigger. It's my job to keep pulling along."

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