When Darius Jennings was a middle school student at Gilman School, the first impression that he made on Biff Poggi was not a lasting one.
“I remember Darius being a skinny kid who liked to play and was very fast,” said Poggi, head coach of the upper school’s varsity football team.
Considering the number of MSA and MIAA championships the school has won, the national rankings garnered in numerous high school polls and the stream of elite gridiron studs that Gilman has graduated into the Division I football ranks, including a few who’ve made it to the NFL, it’s no stretch to assume that Poggi had seen his fair share of fast kids who like to play.
It was a few years later when Jennings got a second chance to make his lasting impression. After starring as a defensive back and running back on the junior varsity, Jennings was elevated to the varsity midway through his freshman year.
“When I really noticed him was when he was playing on the scout team against the first team defense,” said Poggi. “He was just running all over the place and I thought, ‘Wow! This kid’s got a shot to be pretty good.’”
Making first impressions
Jennings drew his first varsity start in the final game of freshman year against arch-rival McDonogh School .
“Being a freshman, starting in a big game like that against our rivals, I was definitely nervous, “said Jennings.
Initially playing running back and cornerback, Jennings walked into the huddle, called the play and lined up at quarterback for the first time in the second quarter. Hauling in the shotgun snap out of the Greyhounds’ Wildcat formation, he ran a power sweep to the left and offered up a quick preview of what the future would hold for Gilman football.
As an opposing linebacker pursued him from an advantageous angle and seemed poised stop the play for a minimal gain, Jennings froze suddenly, made a sharp cut to his right and knifed through the interior of the Eagles defense with an improbable, shocking burst of speed that propelled him into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
In the game’s fourth quarter, he also exhibited his ball-hawking skills as a shutdown corner. With the Greyhounds leading by a touchdown, McDonogh was driving deep into Gilman territory before Jennings’ game-sealing interception in the waning seconds.
“Darius was an extremely important part of our win over McDonogh that year,” said Poggi. “His touchdown and interception were both pretty dynamic and exciting.”
As a sophomore, trying to find Jennings on the field was like flipping through a Where’s Waldo book. One minute he was lined up at receiver, the next – running back, quarterback, corner, safety, punt returner and kick returner.
“I was more of a role player as a sophomore, playing all over the field,” said Jennings. “So last year, I think I caught a lot of people off guard when I focused on playing quarterback because they didn’t know what to expect.”
That’s a very humble way of explaining a junior season in which the dazzling playmaker ran for 2,028 yards, threw for 733 and accounted for 35 touchdown’s for a team that captured the MIAA A Conference title.
Jennings set the tone of his breakout season in last year’s opening game against nationally ranked Bear Creek of Colorado – in front of a partisan crowd at Unitas Stadium that included Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh and Orioles legend Cal Ripken, Jr. He threw for 110 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 201 with three more scores. He also had an 80-yard touchdown dash called back.
“Bear Creek was a very good team, a national program and he lit them up,” Poggi said. “And as a corner, he shut down a kid that was a terrific receiver. He started the year with that burst and was pretty much unstoppable in all of our big games.”
His stunning performances and elite game speed attracted a slew of recruiters, like bees to honey, from some of the top college football programs in the country including Penn State, Ohio State, Nebraska, UCLA, West Virginia, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina and a host of others.
“We just had the right plays called, the line and other backs did a great job blocking and the receivers caught the ball, which made my job a whole lot easier,” said Jennings. “My teammates depend on me as much as I depend on them.”
‘Just an average kid’
The humility and sincerity of those previous statements are genuine. Walking the prestigious Gilman hallways and leafy campus with Jennings, one would be hard pressed to realize, if they didn’t already know, that they were in the company of one of the premier prep athletes in the country.
“I’m just an average kid, really,” said Jennings. “I like to take naps, go to the movies, go to the mall, watch football and play John Madden video games. I’m just an 18-year-old senior in high school.”
He fails to mention that he carries a 3.2 GPA, scored over 1,100 on his SAT’s or that he served as the Vice President of his junior class last year. With some prodding, he opens up about his extra-curricular activities. This year, he’s active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a leader of a mentoring program for Gilman’s lower and middle school, serves as the President of the Diversity Club and the Athletic Association and participates in team bible study and the school’s Character, Education, Leadership Project.
Not an average football player
On a sweltering, oppressively hot afternoon on August 17th, Jennings and the Greyhounds are winding down their summer preparations with a controlled scrimmage at Boys Latin. Playing right cornerback and safety in 7-on-7 drills, the ball is noticeably thrown in every direction but his.
On the only pass that’s lofted in his vicinity, Jennings springs high in the air and snags the interception. On offense, the smooth left-hander executes a number of rollouts, throwing short and intermediate ropes, bullets over the middle and soft deep balls, going 9 for 11. On the first play from scrimmage, with both teams going 11-on-11, full contact, Jennings throws a beautiful 50-yard touchdown on a precisely run flag route.
A few days later at Gilman, while scrimmaging against St. John’s (DC), he looks like a video game character, eating up first down chunks of yardage with regularity.
In this season’s 41-14 opening victory over Archbishop Spalding, Jennings sprinted 90 yards into the end zone on the game’s first kickoff, en route to scoring five touchdowns and piling up 381 all-purpose yards.
This past Saturday at Unitas Stadium, Gilman faced a tough test against the then-No. 9 team in the country, Good Counsel, in the marquee game of the inaugural I-95 Kickoff Classic.
But someone forgot to tell Jennings and his teammates that they were underdogs. Before the game got underway, Good Counsel came sprinting out of the smoke filled tunnel onto the field, jumping around excitedly in anticipation of the matchup of Mid-Atlantic powerhouses.
Gilman, in stark contrast, came walking out of the tunnel a few steps at a time, lined up with military precision, stepping out of the smoke in rigid formation, slowly, businesslike, with purpose. The entrance was stunning, foreshadowing the game’s outcome.
Jennings’ impact was felt immediately. On the opening play from scrimmage, he completed a 15-yard strike to his dangerous junior running back/receiver, Cyrus Jones. On a third-and-two from the Good Counsel 34- yard line, Jennings gathered in the snap, ran up the middle, smelled an opening, made a razor-sharp cut, then shifted into a gear that not many high school athletes possess, sprinting 30 yards downfield in the blink of an eye. On the ensuing first-and-goal, he punctuated the 71-yard drive with a touchdown scamper through the gut of the defense.
Throughout the game, with speedy defenders swarming and doing a good job of keeping Jennings somewhat contained, he showed the tremendous burst, quick feet and strength to navigate through tight spaces that leave college coaches giddy, finishing with 144 rushing yards.
With a little more than four minutes in the first half, he also showed that his arm has to be accounted for – faking a keep up the middle, stepping back, and rifling a precise bullet to a streaking Jones for a beautiful 28-yard touchdown strike.
“His throwing is underrated,” said Poggi. “People overlook that because he can run so well.”
Although not bulky, the wiry, 6-foot, 185-pound Jennings is plenty tough. Blocking for Jones on a third quarter punt return, he landed a crushing hit on a Good Counsel defender, sending the unfortunate player and his helmet flying in opposite directions. The hit eliciting a subdued, appreciative “Ooooooohhhh!” from the stands.
The straw to a potent mix
This Friday, Gilman plays Don Bosco Prep from New Jersey, last season’s mythical National Champions according to several online publications, at Morgan State University’s Hughes Stadium.
In addition to Jennings, Gilman is littered with its most talented roster in recent years. Among the notables are seniors Hunter Goodwin, a 6-6, 285-pound tackle committed to Wake Forest, returning safeties Connor Doyle and Len Worthington, cornerback Justin George, tight end Chris McMaster and linemen John Henrich and Chad Copeland.
The juniors are led by linebacker Devon Porchia, the gifted receiver/running back/ cornerback Cyrus Jones, who’s already landed multiple scholarship offers and whom Poggi calls “our next superstar,” Division I-caliber running back/linebacker Kenny Goins, linebacker Michael Savage, lineman Brian Gaia (6-4, 280), who Poggi calls “the best lineman we’ve ever had,” and running back/linebacker Terry Trusty.
Henry Poggi (6-3, 240), the coach’s son, is an excellent sophomore defensive end and tight end. Other valuable sophomores include linemen Ned Emala, Nick Fertitta and linebackers Wyatt Dickerson, Micah Kaiser and Myles Norris, whose bone-crushing hits against Good Counsel echoed through Unitas Stadium last weekend.
As if that wasn’t enough, freshman linebacker Melvin Keihn (6-2, 210) is a speed rushing demon off the edge.
But the unquestioned leader is the versatile, elusive, shifty, speedy Jennings.
“Darius is highly intelligent, he’s intellectually curious, has enormous character and unbelievable speed and athleticism on the football field,” said Poggi. “That’s rare. He’s an exceptional kid.”
It’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s also true that the second impression can be much more everlasting.