Friday, November 18, 2016
CONFIDENT JENNINGS LEADS LIONS INTO CALGARY
The script between teammates tends to be pretty similar in most cases - players imploring each other to continue fighting if they're behind or to keep the foot on the gas if they're ahead.
But every so often there's an unexpected twist.
With the B.C. Lions down 13 points at the break in last Sunday's playoff game, soft-spoken second-year quarterback Jonathon Jennings stood up in the locker-room and calmly let everyone know things were going to be fine if the club stayed the course.
He would lead them to victory.
"When people say that, sometimes you might not believe them, but when Jon says it he actually means it,'' said Elimimian, the star B.C. linebacker who led the CFL with 130 tackles. "Guys know when other guys are telling the truth, and when Jon said that, guys were like: 'We're going to be all right.'''
And they were.
Jennings rebounded from two early turnovers to lead the Lions all the way back to a dramatic 32-31 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division semifinal.
The 24-year-old orchestrated consecutive long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter with the poise of a veteran, taking what the defence gave him with short passes underneath before a memorable nine-yard scramble to the end zone with just over a minute to play for the game-clinching points.
"The bigger the moment, the better he is,'' said Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono.
But no one predicted it would happen this soon.
An unknown quantity when he showed up at B.C.'s spring passing camp in April 2015 after a couple of failed pro tryouts, Jennings' rise with the Lions has been nothing short of meteoric.
The club announced his signing in a short press release earlier that month - he was the sixth quarterback to join the roster - but he won the No. 3 job at training camp, and moved to the top of the depth chart out of necessity partway through the schedule because of injuries.
"You never know what's going to happen, but all you can do is continue to work hard and hope that opportunity comes,'' said Jennings. "It came for me early.''
The Saginaw Valley State product showed well enough to maintain the starters' role even once veteran QB Travis Lulay was healthy, and earned a new contract over the winter. Jennings helped the Lions to an impressive 12-6 record this season prior last weekend's playoff victory to set up Sunday's West final in Calgary against the Stampeders thanks in large part to an attention to detail not often seen in young players.
"There's always exceptions to the rule,'' said Lulay, who has been a solid teammate and an even better friend to the man who took his job. "If you're that guy and you buy into the 'young quarterback narrative' and you feel OK with making mistakes, then you're likely going to make mistakes.''
Jennings hasn't made many in 2016, throwing for 5,226 yards and 27 touchdowns with a 67 per cent completion rating over 18 games. He did lead the league in interceptions with 15, but also engineered six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter before doing it against the Bombers in the playoffs.
"I was impressed with his composure,'' said wide receiver Bryan Burnham. "We were breaking the huddle on that last drive against Winnipeg and everyone's like: 'We've got to go! We've got to hurry up!' And he's like: 'Guys, calm down. Relax. I've got this.'
"That gives you a lot of confidence.''
Lulay said even though Jennings has only been the starter for a short time, the roller-coaster the Lions have endured from last season's 7-11 campaign to now has sped up his development.
"He's gotten a lot of experience in those moments,'' said Lulay. "You've seen them go both ways - having lived through a moment that didn't pan out, and having lived through the moment that did. He's been on both sides so he knows the feeling.''
Asked why he almost always seems to comes up big when the pressure's on, Jennings said it boils down to treating each situation the same.
"I don't think it's some type of magic,'' said the Columbus native. "It's just going out there and executing play by play.''
Elimimian, the CFL's most outstanding player in 2014 and one of the Lions' undisputed leaders, said despite the success Jennings has enjoyed on the field in leading B.C. to within a game of the Grey Cup, little has changed off it.
"He's down to earth. He's a humble kid. We expect so much from him because we've seen so much from him, but he's only 24,'' said Elimimian. "It's scary to see his growth from last year. It's even scarier to think how good he can be.
"Jon doesn't talk as if he's a star quarterback.''
When he does speak, his teammates listen.