SANTA CLARA — When Green Bay cornerback Carrington Valentine was introduced to the Gatorade buckets courtesy of Jauan Jennings, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw could relate.
“Oh yeah, Jauan, he’ll get you,” Greenlaw said Thursday. “I remember one time, Jauan just laid me out. I know it sounds crazy, but he did. I wasn’t expecting it and it was like, ‘Damn.’”
That was in practice, where protocol prohibits taking teammates to the ground for risk of injury, and for blockers to square up their opposition without delivering a full blow.
But that’s not how Jennings rolls, and it’s something coach Kyle Shanahan has had to tell his own defense when things get chippy.
“Our defense tried to fight him all last year because they thought he was going above and beyond,” Shanahan said. “The next day in a meeting I had to show them what he does every single play and say, ‘It’s not personal. This is just how he blocks.’”
When the top-seeded 49ers (13-5) host No. 3 Detroit (14-5) at Levi’s Stadium, Lions defenders will have their heads on a swivel with No. 15 is around. All 49ers receivers are required to block with zeal by order of Shanahan. Jennings takes it to another level.
In a 24-21 divisional win over Green Bay, Jennings, who missed the previous three games with concussion symptoms, stepped up as a receiver with five receptions for 61 yards. Five of them extended drives with first downs, two of which came on third-down plays — a specialty that earned him the nickname “Third and Jauan” by the fan base.
All of them came after Deebo Samuel left with a shoulder injury. Samuel is good to go against Detroit on Sunday, but while at South Carolina he’d already built up respect for Jennings in games against Tennessee.
“That’s just what we see from Jauan day-in and day-out,” Samuel said. “When I was in college we played them every year and seeing how he’s developed from then to now is amazing.”
There is one game in particular Jennings will never forget. In 2018, South Carolina came from behind and beat Tennessee with the help of a one-handed left-handed catch from Samuel for a touchdown to fuel the the comeback.
“I still think about it,” Jennings said. “They ruined our dreams at Tennessee for a couple of years. I loved watching Deebo in college, and to get drafted and come and get to play with him on the same time it was really cool to see what it’s come to now. We can’t let Sunday be our last Sunday.”
Jennings had a highlight-reel catch of his own in the win over Green Bay with a leaping 21-yard snag of a pass from Brock Purdy on third down that sustained a drive. Jennings gave Purdy full credit.
“Purdy’s a baller,” Jennings said. “He put that ball up and just trusted me to go up and get it. I wouldn’t have been able to to without him placing it there.”
Ten of Jennings’ 19 regular-season receptions were on third down, making up 121 out of his 265 total yards. A seventh-round draft pick out of Tennessee, Jennings spent his first season on the practice squad before making the team in 2021 in part because of his physicality at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds.
Even with the receiving heroics, it was the Carrington block that went viral. It came as zero surprise to Shanahan, who was asked of Jennings is the most ferocious blocking receiver he’s ever coached.
“Probably,” Shanahan said. “Taking that guy into the Gatorade, that’s what he does every play out at practice.”
— 49ers Webzone (@49erswebzone) January 22, 2024
On a team of stars, Jennings’ name draws the same blank stares on a national scale, but his physicality is revered by his teammates.
“I think he’s one of the best football players on our team,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “He doesn’t get all the attention or the limelight, but you know he’s going to be there in the clutch situations when you need him.”
Fellow wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk seconded the notion.
“I feel like this is his moment,” Aiyuk said. “This is what he’s made for, this is what he’s built for. I’m ready ride with him.”
Jennings is equally inspired by his teammates, including one unsung special-teams ace in particular.
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“The way guys prepare, the way they play the game of football is different and it inspires me,” Jennings said. “A guy that I think about all the time is George Odum. All-Pro G.O., that’s what we call him. There are people in this room that made me want to take my game to another level.”
Jennings is playing in his third consecutive NFC Championship Game and promises not to let the moment get too big.
“It’s a football game no different than any other football game,”Jennings said “Opportunities are going to present themselves and either you’re going to make it or you’re not.”