Diamond in the rough ready for start

ATHENS - Tommy Brown tried to tell all of them, he said, all the Division I-A college coaches who blew into Orangeburg, S.C., looked at his all-state, but 5-foot-8, cornerback and breezed right on out of town.

"I just felt like they were losing out," Brown said. "I was just saying to everybody, 'Y'all are missing out on a jewel here just because he doesn't have that stature you're looking for.''"

Brown, then the coach at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, has coached more than a half dozen players who went on to play major Division I-A football, and he knew Tim Jennings was good enough to join that group.

"I've coached enough Division I talent to know, and I knew that he was a player," Brown said.

Brown was the only one who felt that way for a long time. Until 48 hours before National Signing Day in 2002, South Carolina State, the Citadel and North Carolina A&T were the only schools to offer Jennings a scholarship.

Jennings verbally committed to South Carolina State and would have signed there if Georgia hadn't had a scholarship come open at the last minute and offered it to Jennings the night before signing day.

The Bulldogs (7-1, 4-1 SEC) didn't make up their mind on Jennings until the weekend before signing day when secondary coach Willie Martinez went to Orangeburg for the first time and watched a highlight film, Brown said.

Now, instead of getting ready for South Carolina State's big game against Delaware State, Jennings is preparing to start against No. 23 Florida (5-3, 3-2) in No. 4 Georgia's biggest game of the season. It's a role Jennings was forced into by Decory Bryant's season-ending neck injury and a role he and his coaches say he can handle.

"I'm very excited about it," Jennings said. "(Martinez) called me Sunday night and said this is the time to step up."

"Timmy has practiced well and when he's had a chance to play, he's played very well," Coach Mark Richt said. "We're hurting for Decory, and we're hurting because he's not with us, but we have confidence in Timmy."

Jennings long ago erased any doubts his coaches and teammates had about his height. He started three games as a true freshman and picked off three passes.

"We don't worry at all about Tim," wide receiver Fred Gibson said. "Tim's a great player, man. Size doesn't matter."

This spring, Jennings seemed poised to earn one of the starting cornerback spots until an offseason incident in which he was charged with simple possession of marijuana led to a two-game suspension.

"I really kicked myself the whole summer, but I made a mistake and I had to live with it," Jennings said.

Jennings was forced to work with the scout team for the first two weeks of the season and lost all of the momentum he gained during the spring. Only in the last two weeks has he gotten back to peak form, Martinez said.

"I think the last couple of weeks I've felt the same way about him that I felt in the spring," Martinez said. "I've been excited about the way he's been playing."

Jennings has played in six games this year and has one start as the Bulldogs' nickel back. He has made just nine tackles so far and his biggest play of the year came when LSU receiver Skyler Green got behind him for a game-winning touchdown in Georgia's only loss.

The ensuing off week brought a lot of heckling from an unlikely spot, his family, particularly his brother Jerrod.

"He let me have it," he said. "Everybody was so tough on me. That's how my family is, but they don't mean anything by it."

Jennings has developed a thick skin through the years.

"He always felt everybody overlooked him for his size so that gave him a lot of motivation," Brown said.

Jennings made his first career interception against Florida last year. Still, he expects the Gators to see his height and decide he's too tempting target not to test.

"I expect Florida to come after me," he said. "I don't blame them. I'll be ready."

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