MacArthur senior Brian Jennings received interest from Northern Illinois and Minnesota — among other schools — during his recruiting process,
In fact, before Jennings headed to South Carolina in December to play in the National Underclassmen All-American game, Northern Illinois was at the top of his list even though head coach Dave Doeren had headed south himself to take the top job at North Carolina State.
Eastern Illinois University has a date in DeKalb against the Huskies on Sept. 21 this coming season. In 2014, the Panthers open their season in Minneapolis against the Golden Gophers.
Jennings is looking forward to both, as the Generals’ top running back the past two seasons will be a preferred walk-on this fall for the Panthers’ football team.
“To be honest with you, I was looking at the schedules for the next couple years, and I see a lot of teams I was recruited by,” Jennings said. “I’m looking forward to those the most because I’ve got something to prove to them — this is a guy we missed out on, we could have had.”
Jennings is also eager to prove himself to EIU after the Panthers’ coaching staff stuck with him throughout the entire recruiting process.
Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was Jennings’ primary recruiter.
“He’s probably the guy that showed the most love,” Jennings said. “It didn’t feel like he played me off. It showed because they came and got me.
“He’s probably the one that really sold them. He just said I was a real high character guy and he liked my work ethic, and he always stuck by me through everything.”
Jennings will head to EIU with the running back spots somewhat up for grabs. Last year’s top back Jake Walker — the first Panthers’ running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Travorus Bess did so in 2008 — graduated, leaving converted quarterback and Marshall product Taylor Duncan as the top returner.
Duncan, who will be a redshirt junior next fall, rushed 117 times last year for 481 yards and eight touchdowns. EIU’s other top two backs this spring have been redshirt junior A.J. Woodson (a converted defensive back) and Bobby Huey, who redshirted last season as a true freshman.
EIU signed just one running back from the Class of 2013 — 5-foot-10 Vista, Calif., product Daviante Sayles. Springfield High senior Malik Harrison, who also signed in February, is listed as an “athlete” although he played both running back and defensive back for the Senators.
EIU has five total running backs listed on its spring roster, but Woodson is the only other returning player besides Duncan to get carries last season (seven for 31 yards in five games).
“I feel like it’s a great place to start off,” Jennings said. “I feel like I can come in and compete and try to get playing time — avoid that redshirt next year.
“I’m a really competitive person. I’m going to go into camp going hard. I’m not going to let them cruise in front of me. I’m going to make them earn it.”
EIU won’t limit Jennings to just the offensive side of the ball, though, if the situation dictates a switch.
“He is a player that has a chance to contribute on offense as a running back, but has the ability to slide over and play linebacker on defense,” Gilbert said. “He fought some injury problems his senior season, and we feel he is a high-caliber player who will be able to help us.”
The Panthers made a significant turnaround last year, going 7-5 and making the FCS playoffs in Dino Babers’ first year as head coach after consecutive 2-9 seasons. They lost in the first round to South Dakota State in their first playoff appearance since 2009.
Babers committed to the spread at EIU, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora benefited the most as the duo both finished in the top 10 for the Walter Payton Award — the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
But the run game was just as significant a part of the Panthers’ offense. Walker rushed for 1,153 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jennings said he can fit into that scheme even as more of a downfield rusher by keeping defenses honest if they play the pass too heavily.
Jennings is nursing a groin/hamstring injury right now during MacArthur’s track season, but he’s still working in the weight room with a weightlifting schedule EIU gave him. Getting stronger is one of his main goals before next season starts.
“I know it’s a physical game,” the 5-foot-11 Jennings said. “I’m at 191 (pounds) right now. I’m trying to go into camp at 200 or 205. When these guys hit me, they’ll bounce off and I won’t take as much punishment.”