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Jennings bounces back

Cornerback looks like a radically different player

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

8:09 PM CDT, July 25, 2012

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BOURBONNAIS — If resiliency is a critical trait in a cornerback, Tim Jennings has an edge that distinguishes him.

The player who was benched late last season and given the cold shoulder in free agency now enters Bears training camp as the most valuable defensive player of the offseason.

Granted, it was only the offseason, but Jennings looked like a radically different player than the one who played somewhat tentatively down the stretch last season.

Bears coaches keep track of all interceptions in minicamp and OTA drills. Jennings led the team with 10, double the amount of runner-ups D.J. Mooreand Isaiah Frey.

This was significant because in some games last year, Jennings looked like he was allergic to the football.

A couple of things had begun to affect Jennings, perhaps subconsciously. The first is he had become risk-averse because, like a lot of cornerbacks, he did not want to get burned for the big play.

"This defense is built around bend, don't break," Jennings said. "Don't let anyone get behind you. And it seems like when I did get a little aggressive, that's when I got beat."

The other thing that affected him is he dropped a couple of potential interceptions. Bears coaches got on him hard about it, riding him in meetings and practices.

He acknowledges it affected his confidence.

"I thought I had good hands, but after you drop a few, you do lose a bit," he said. "It's frustrating."

Way back when he was a Georgia Bulldog, Jennings showed he can catch the ball. He had 10 interceptions in college, but he has had only seven in six pro seasons.

He had two last year, which tied his career high. Coaches thought he should have had five more. That led to Jennings being benched against the Packers in the penultimate game of 2012.

He regained his starting job in the season finale, but in March his contract expired and interest in Jennings was limited. The Steelers and Bucs offered one-year deals for the NFL minimum of $825,000.

But then the Bears stepped up with an offer of $6.6 million over two years, including $2 million guaranteed and $3 million in 2012.

Jennings, it turned out, had a fan in new general manager Phil Emery.

In 2006, Emery was the college scouting director of the Falcons. Their plan was to use the 15th pick in the third round that year on the scrappy little cornerback who played up the road in Athens.

There was a collective groan in the draft room in Flowery Branch, Ga., when the Colts selected Jennings 17 picks ahead of the Falcons' turn.

"I really like him," Emery said. "He is an explosive kid, very quick twitch. He is tough and savvy."

I like him too. He has earned my respect.

At 5 feet 8, he always will have limitations. But Jennings doesn't back down from anything or anyone. He approaches the game as if he is the biggest, baddest dude on the field. There is more heart in this one little cornerback than there is in some entire secondaries.

After re-signing with the Bears, Jennings dedicated himself to justifying Emery's faith in him. He knew coach Lovie Smith and his staff were disappointed about how few plays he made on the ball, so he caught at least 60 passes from the jugs machine before each offseason practice.

When practice began, he was all about the football.

"I wanted to make sure if I touched it, I caught it," he said. "I don't remember dropping too many easy ones."

He also paid close attention to getting his body right. Jennings said his body fat is at 8 percent, down from 12 percent in 2010. He also has stayed a little lighter than he has been at 180 pounds, which he believes will make him quicker.

Although Emery clearly believes in Jennings, his bet is hedged. Emery also signed Kelvin Hayden, a free agent cornerback who once started ahead of Jennings for the Colts.

Jennings is expected to begin the first practice as a starter, but to stay there, he will need to keep ballhawking.

"I'm very motivated," he said. "I'm excited to get back out there."

He just needs to pick up where he left off — in the offseason, that is.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei