What is it about athletes that didn't play football in college that piques the interest of Bill Belichick?
Back in 2001 it was Stephen Neal, a former world-class wrestler who impressed the coaching staff enough to still be here vying for a more prominent role on the Patriots offensive line. Now wideout Michael Jennings represents the latest potential Patriot who made his name in a sport other than football as an amateur.
Jennings ran track at Florida State but never played a down of football for the Seminoles highly regarded program. But unlike Neal, who barely had any experience in the game even as a high school player, Jennings' football background isn't quite as limited.
He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and starred at N.B. Forrest High School as a receiver. He was a Prop 48 partial qualifier, which limited his college opportunities. He wound up at Grambling State on a football scholarship but before he sat out his Prop 48 year he already had designs on attending his true school of choice: Florida State.
Jennings spoke with the track coaches at FSU and made a bold prediction. "I told them that if I could beat everybody on the team that I should get a scholarship," he said.
After making good on his promise, he transferred and spent three productive years on the Seminoles track team. He ran the 400 meters and recorded a personal best 45.55, second best in school history behind only Olympic gold medallist Walter McCoy. Jennings also ran the 200 meters and recorded an impressive 21.01 in that event, which was good enough for him to earn All-ACC honors.
Jennings walked-on the football team but never stepped on the field for Bobby Bowden's bunch. Still, his blazing speed and impressive athleticism were enough to draw NFL interest and the San Francisco 49ers selected Jennings in the 2002 supplemental draft.
"I went to play with the 49ers in the preseason and even though I didn't make the team, it worked out well and I learned a lot," Jennings said. "Now I'm here just working hard and trying to get better as fast as I can. The first thing you have to do to go from track speed to football speed is work on being explosive and getting out of your breaks. But the most important thing is catching that football."
Jennings tried to continue honing his skills and was in camp preparing for a stint in NFL Europe this spring when the Patriots took notice. He worked with backup quarterback Rohan Davey in training camp and the Patriots coaches approached him about coming to New England to work in the team's offseason program.
"There were too many allocated receivers over [in Europe] so I wasn't able to go over," Jennings said. "But Coach Belichick saw that I was doing well so he brought me in. He said he might have a place for me and wanted me to get into the program for a couple of months and see what happens."
So far the 24-year-old hasn't looked a bit out of place. He's shown good hands and appears to get in and out of his cuts well. Obviously his sheer speed and quickness are tough to miss, even among the Patriots deep group of receivers.
But his odds are quite long given the team's overall depth at the position. Troy Brown recently had his contract guaranteed so he's not going anywhere. Youngsters David Givens and Deion Branch should be Patriots for years to come. Second-year speedster Bethel Johnson, who did not take part in mini-camp as he recovers from recent stomach surgery, also is a virtual lock to make the roster. That leaves either one or two openings depending on how many wideouts Belichick decides to keep.
Veterans David Patten and J.J. Stokes, newcomer Marquise Walker, rookie fifth-round pick P.K. Sam and Chas Gessner, who enjoyed a strong season in Europe with Davey, all have an edge on Jennings in terms of experience. But if he can show some promise perhaps a spot on the practice squad, which will expand from five to eight players this season, is not out of the question.
"All those guys have been helpful and kind of taken me under their wings," Jennings said. "This is the best group of guys I've ever been around in any sport. David Patten in particular has really helped me spiritually and mentally and that's made it so much easier working with these guys. This is like a dream come true because I never expected to be here, and I'm ready to play."
Ring around the corner
The Patriots will receive their Super Bowl rings on Sunday night in a private ceremony at the home of owner Robert Kraft. A small sampling of comments from players and Head Coach Bill Belichick shows that the team is going to use the celebratory evening to officially close the door on the 2003 campaign.
"I think that really is the last thing to talk about in terms of the '03 season and the ring is symbolic of what the team accomplished and that's what we all play for," Belichick said. "It's a prize that you work hard to get so it will be exciting to see it and have it. But at the same time that will be a short window for us to enjoy it and we've got the '04 season upon us."
"What it does is it kind of gives you an opportunity to close the book on it, finish it up, celebrate a great season and then also put that behind you and look forward to a new season, because you have to," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Nobody is going to care that we're going to get the rings on Sunday. They are all going to be working."
But as much as the team will use Sunday's presentation to put closure on its 17-2 season, that doesn't mean the players aren't going to enjoy it while they can.
"The feeling is kind of the same," quarterback Tom Brady said in anticipation of putting on his second Super Bowl ring in three years. "I mean it's a great, great feeling. I remember what I felt when I looked at that other ring for the first time. I was just so overjoyed. You look at it and it represents a lot. It represents everything that we put into last year, which was a great year. It's something that all of us will remember and then you look at that ring and that kind of symbolizes being a world champion."
And could that feeling ever get old?
"Never," Brady said with a sly smile. "Trust me, never."
The team closed out the three-day mini-camp with a Saturday morning that focused on situational work including a goal line segment and an extended two-minute drill. … Lonie Paxton continued to practice snaps with Josh Miller and Adam Vinatieri, although he did not wear a jersey or participate in any group drills. … Michael Cloud and David Patten continued to wear red, non-contact jerseys, while Patrick Pass returned to his normal white shirt. … Deion Branch did not practice for the second straight day. … Kevin Faulk began practice with his helmet and jersey, but did not take part in the morning workout. … Jarvis Green did not practice for the third straight day as he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot. … Eugene Wilson also sat out for a third day as he recovers from his Super Bowl XXXVIII injury. … Paxton, Branch, Faulk, Cedric Cobbs, Eric Alexander and Wilson all spent the first part of the practice in the adjacent field house working with the strength and conditioning staff. … Rookie tight end Benjamin Watson was once again absent from the practice field. … Robert Kraft took in practice for the third straight day. … As they did at times last season, Dan Klecko and Vrabel worked with the goal line offense at fullback and tight end, respectively. … Rosevelt Colvin continued to wear helmet and pads and participate on a limited basis. … During the goal line segment a group of receivers not involved with the drill worked with wide receivers coach Brian Daboll on end-of-game type improvisational plays. … A staple of last year's training camp at Gillette Stadium, a small flock of geese flew over Saturday's morning session. … Second-year cornerback Asante Samuel showed quick feet and solid running skills in an open field tackling drill, skills that could make the defender a viable option in the return game somewhere down the line. Samuel returned 63 punts (10.7 avg.) and 10 kickoffs in his four years at Central Florida. … Running back Malaefou Mackenzie finished the practice on the sideline with the trainers. … With Brady and Kliff Kingsbury the only two quarterbacks in camp, Patriots director of pro personnel and former Div. III quarterback Nick Caserio helped out throwing passes in group passing drills. … Former Giants tight end Mark Bavaro, a fixture at various Patriots camps over last year, took a more hands on approach working with the tight ends during a positional portion of practice. … During a seven-on-seven, two-minute drill linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer were joined by defensive backs Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison, Terrell Buckley and rookie Guss Scott as the first group of defenders. … Brady hooked up with David Givens to beat Law for a touchdown to culminate one drive in the segment. … Daniel Graham caught a touchdown from Brady in a team portion of the two-minute segment. … Rookie free agent Randall Gay broke up a number of Kingsbury's passes in the same drill. … The practice finished with field goal work in which Adam Vinatieri went 8-for-8 on kicks ranging from 30-43 yards.