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Rashad Jennings looks to replicate late-season surge

Posted Aug 3, 2016

RB Coach Craig Johnson has high praise for Rashad Jennings: 

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Craig Johnson has coached football for 34 years, including 17 in the NFL. He has coached for a pair of teams that produced a 2,000-yard rusher (the 2009 Tennessee Titans with Chris Johnson, and the 2012 Minnesota Vikings with Adrian Peterson). So Craig Johnson’s words carried a lot of weight when he evaluated Rashad Jennings’ performance late in the 2015 season and said, “At the end of the year, he was probably playing as well as any back in football.”

Jennings closed the season by rushing for 81, 107, 74 and 170 yards in the final four games – his four highest totals of the season. His carries in each of those games – 22, 16, 14 and 27 – were also his top four in 2015. The strong finish enabled him to establish career highs with 195 rushing attempts and 863 yards.

Before Jennings found his groove, the Giants used a committee of backs that included Andre Williams, Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa, an arrangement that satisfied no one, and failed to produce as the players and coaches hoped it would.

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“What I've learned is that if you can have a couple of guys playing a lot, then a spare guy, that's the best way to go,” Johnson said. “When we started the season, we actually had Rashad and Andre carrying the main core carries, then, of course, Shane, who's so good at his role, was getting a lot of reps. We, for whatever reason, were not getting a lot of production, and with runners, like a lot of other positions, you want to be productive, trustworthy and consistent, and you have to be available. Some of the guys that I've talked about that have had those great seasons, they've been able to carry the load and come back next week. So we've kind of gone with those three guys, we weren't quite getting the rhythm that we wanted for whatever reason.”

As the Giants work their way through training camp, the corps of backs has grown larger. In the offseason, the team signed veteran free agent Bobby Rainey and drafted Paul Perkins from UCLA. But Jennings is the starter.

But the question looms – can Jennings duplicate his workload production from last season’s final four weeks over an entire 16-game season? And can he do it in his eighth NFL season and at 31, which is past the 30-year-old age milestone from which few backs continue to ascend?

“That's something that's got to be determined,” Johnson said. “He has not had that kind of workload in his career. Obviously, last year was his career best year, and so we have to determine that and that's why a lot of teams go more toward playing two, so they can have a guy fresh for your fourth quarter run, like in December when the postseason is on the line. So we'll start and we'll see how it goes. I certainly think the way he ended last year, he deserves an opportunity to go out there and be the starter, which is what he is. But there's going to be a lot of competition and he understands that, and I think he'll raise his game to that level.”

Jennings absolutely expects to do that. And despite what the running back actuarial tables may say, he believes his career is still on the rise.

“All my best football is definitely ahead of me,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited to get into the season.”

He is aware most backs his age are in or beginning a decline in productivity. Is part of his motivation to prove he can move in the opposite direction?

“I would say yes,” Jennings said. “Not to prove that wrong. I like beating all odds, I like odds against me, that’s fun for me. Tell me what else I can’t do, tell me another stereotype I can’t break. What I remember coming in as a rookie, I remember I was telling (Jacksonville’s) Maurice (Jones-Drew). He was asking me what some of my goals were, and I said, ‘I want to lead the league in blocked punts and be the oldest, most productive player in the league.’ I have the chance to do that.”

Asked why he can be the workhorse for an entire season, Jennings said, “I’m a complete back.”

He admits he was frustrated when the coaching staff was using a group of backs.
 
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“I should be,” he said. “Every back should be. There’s a difference between being frustrated and actually complaining. I never complain. I’m not a complainer, but yes, I was frustrated, I should be.”

Jennings said there was no magic or secret to his late-season surge.
 
“I was running behind the line,” he said, “and had the opportunity to come on the sideline and talk to the offensive linemen, then going right back out and going at what we just talked about.”

Jennings believes he will improve this season, because it is his third in Ben McAdoo’s offensive system, he is in top condition and is enjoying himself more now than he ever has.  He doesn’t even have a complaint about training camp

“You appreciate the process more, you really do,” he said. “As a rookie, you’re just like, ‘Man, I’m swinging my bat and just trying to get through this thing and get to the games.’ But as a vet, you understand why you practice, you understand why you repeat things, you understand why you meet. So you look forward to getting everybody in that same alignment and same mentality as you go fight for a championship.”

That’s the Giants’ goal, and Jennings expects to help carry them there.