Face of the Franchise: Jonathon Jennings ready to lead B.C. Lions in 2016

B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings looks of a receiver during first half CFL western semifinal football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

KAMLOOPS - Jonathon Jennings waits patiently in one of the end zones as the media begins to assemble following a morning practice at B.C. Lions training camp.

At this time last year, the quarterback might already be in the locker-room immersing himself in the playbook or throwing extra routes to receivers on the field, a little-known rookie trying to find an edge in the battle to earn his first pro job.

Just 12 months later, Jennings is the unlikely face of the franchise.

The Columbus native made the Lions in 2015 before rocketing up the depth chart two-thirds of the way through the season after starter Travis Lulay and backup John Beck went down with injuries.

Jennings ran with his opportunity, demonstrating a superior skillset and veteran poise to keep the No. 1 spot once Lulay was ready to return.

Now with a new three-year contract in hand, Jennings is the presumptive starter at his second camp, but he said the increased scrutiny won't be unlike the high bar he set for himself when no one knew his name.

"There was pressure last year ... and that was to come out and perform," said the 23-year-old. "If you don't perform in this business then you're going home."

Jennings finished 3-3 in his six regular-season starts for B.C., completing 66 per cent of his pass attempts for 2,004 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions before getting injured in the club's playoff loss.

Prior to his breakthrough with the Lions, the Saginaw Valley State product had a couple of NFL tryouts and a workout with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, only to be cut each time.

"He's got a tremendous arm, he's athletic, he's smart," said B.C. head coach and general manager Wally Buono. "When you look at all those attributes, you wonder why somebody didn't see that earlier."

The six-foot, 195-pound Jennings was happy with how he progressed in Year 1 with the Lions, but is also quick to add there's plenty room to grow as the club looks to re-energize its fanbase after a disappointing 7-11 campaign that included a fourth straight one-and-done playoff.

"The next step is evolving as a student of the game," said Jennings. "I did some good things, but a lot of it came with being decisive and making sure I made my first read.

"I want to work on coming to that second and third read and understanding the plays a lot better."

An interesting sidenote to Jennings' meteoric rise is his strong bond with Lulay. The pair roomed together last June when Beck fell ill and became friends off the field despite the fact that one's success means the other will be holding a clipboard.

"What I sensed from (Jennings) early was he was hungry and really appreciative of the opportunity," said Lulay. "He reminded me of myself wanting to learn so much when he got here. Having that personal relationship helps in a big way."

Jennings said he and Lulay are constantly discussing and dissecting defences, with the seven-year veteran passing on as much information as possible.

"We're good buddies, but we also compete," said Jennings. "It's good for the team, it's good for us to elevate our game. A lot of good comes out of that when you're learning from somebody, but you're also competing against him."

The 32-year-old Lulay, who said he's as healthy as he's been since the spring of 2013, could have sulked or rocked the boat when Jennings took his job. Instead he chose to re-sign with the Lions knowing that, while he will get a chance to compete for playing time, his primary role will likely be as a mentor.

"Lulay's always been a team guy," said Lions defensive back Ryan Phillips. "It might be surprising to some, but it's not to me. He's a guy that's always going to sacrifice for the team."

Added Buono: "Travis is a special person, period. He's proven over and over and over again the strength of his character."

Back at that scrum with reporters, the one he never would have been a part of 365 days ago, Jennings reflected on how much has changed for him since the team last convened in Kamloops.

"You're the leader out there," he said. "It's different, but at the same time whether you're a two, three, four, one, whatever you are, you've got to lead the troops ... it's exciting."


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