LSU wide receiver Jaray Jenkins will be playing for Jena against Texas A&M
BATON ROUGE - Perhaps Arkansas' coaches should have asked Jaray Jenkins to stick around that cold day in November of 2017.
LSU had just defeated the Razorbacks, 33-10, and Jenkins, a three-star wide receiver from Jena High School, was visiting Arkansas as a prospect.
"You want to stick around," Jenkins' father John asked him.
"No, they didn't ask me to hang around like they did the other guy," Jenkins told his dad. "Let's get out of here, and I'm not going to be coming back."
Jenkins instead later signed with LSU along with highly ranked receivers like Terrace Marshall Jr., a five-star prospect from Parkway High in Bossier City, and four-star Ja'Marr Chase of Rummel High in Metairie. Jenkins could have been ranked higher, but he missed nearly all of his senior season in '17 after breaking his leg.
After driving nearly eight hours from Jena, La., to Fayetteville, Ark., and spending the day in the cold, John Jenkins did not much want to return either. But he did three years later last Saturday.
"I didn't want make that drive again," he said Friday. "But I'm glad I did."
Jaray Jenkins caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from LSU quarterback TJ Finley with 3:59 to play last Saturday to give LSU a 27-24 lead, and the Tigers held on for the victory.
It was his first touchdown catch since high school. And it climaxed three years of waiting after being redshirted in 2018 and playing in only seven games as a reserve in 2019 with five catches for 67 yards.
"It's been a long time since I've been in the end zone," Jenkins said Tuesday. "My first college one - it was crazy. It was just hard to explain. I wish it was in Tiger Stadium, but it wasn't."
If Jenkins catches another one in LSU's next game, it also will not be in Tiger Stadium. LSU (3-3) plays at No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1) tonight (6 p.m., ESPN). The Aggies are two-touchdown favorites.
Jenkins, who has 16 receptions for 277 yards this season for third on the team behind Marshall and tight end Arik Gilbert, will be counted on for more catches. Starting wide receiver Racey McMath (leg) is not expected to play.
"I just knew my time was going to come," Jenkins said. "I knew I was going to get a touchdown, just didn't know when. But I knew it was going to be whenever my team needed me, and we needed that at that moment. And we made it happen."
Breaking down the touchdown catch
LSU faced a third-and-13 going into that play after a 5-yard penalty against Finley for intentional grounding. Jenkins was not Finley's primary receiver on the touchdown. Finley first rolled right, saw no one open, and ran back left.
This switched LSU to its all-bets-are-off passing route tree.
"That was a scramble," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said on his radio show Wednesday. "That's something you do in your backyard. Jaray and TJ made eye contact. He came across the field. What a tremendous play Jaray made. Everybody knows their scramble route. We practice that all the time - what position you're in, where to go on the field. Is he scrambling right or left? How to switch your routes up. And TJ's tall enough to see those guys."
John Jenkins saw his son open before TJ did.
"When you have a child on the field, you keep an eye on him," he said. "I saw Jaray running to the middle of the end zone."
Once he avoided the rush, so did Finley, and he let it fly.
"I saw TJ roll out, and I just looked around the field and saw an open spot in the end zone," Jenkins said. "And I ran there. I knew and trusted TJ that he'll find me."
Jenkins paused and said, "He found me."
The pass was a little low. "It's a good thing he's got great hands. He went down and got it," his dad said.
"I thought Jaray had one of his best games," Orgeron said. Jenkins finished with three catches for 43 yards.
"He's having a heck of a season for us," Orgeron said.
"As a kid, my dream was scoring touchdowns for the Tigers," Jenkins said. "And when it happened, I was excited in the moment. But I knew we still had to fight to win the game."
Celebration in Jena for hometown hero
Meanwhile, back in Jena, a town of 3,300 that is 45 minutes north of Alexandria in La Salle Parish, the celebration had already begun.
"The whole town has been celebrating Jaray making that catch," John Jenkins said. "My phone started blowing up right after with people calling and texting. Everybody was trying to get a word in about Jaray. It hasn't stopped since. That's really big for LSU to win a game with someone from Jena making the catch for the go-ahead touchdown. I'm so glad I was there. I almost didn't go."
Jena High football coach Jay Roark watched the catch on television at home.
"We got pretty excited in our house," said Roark, whose Jena Giants (5-2) were set to host Kenner Discovery (5-3) in a Class 3A bi-district playoff game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Heavy rains postponed the game from Friday night.
"Everybody has been waiting on him to have that moment," Roark said. "Jaray was a local celebrity before he ever left Jena. Now, he's really a celebrity here. And he's such a good kid. I've been pulling for him."
There have not been a lot of football players from Jena go to LSU. Jenkins' older brother David played at LSU in 2011, but he signed with the Tigers out of Hebron High in Carrollton, Texas, after moving from Jena. He transferred to TCU after one season.
"Everybody around here is tickled to death for Jaray," Roark said. "The little town of Jena does not see something like that a lot."
The most famous football player from Jena is Jason Hatcher, who went to Grambling and was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. He played defensive end for the Cowboys through 2013 and made the Pro Bowl before finishing his career with Washington in 2014 and '15.
Hatcher's wife Natasha is Jaray Jenkins' sister.
"Jena is a small town," Jaray said. "Everybody knows everybody. I think that's why I love it the most. So, it was great (making the TD catch) knowing that a lot of people from Jena don't make it out. Every time I get a chance, I'm going to go back home just to see people that I love."
Jenkins wanted to come home for Thanksgiving, but there was too much to do in preparation for the game at Texas A&M.
"I have lots of support from everybody at home, and they're always with me," he said. "Every time I'm playing, I know who I represent, and I'm always going to reflect back to where I came from."
Jena believed in Jenkins when others did not.
"This summer I saw all the media or whatever didn't even have my name there," he said. "So I worked hard, and I knew my time was coming. Some people weren't counting on me, but I knew what was at stake. I knew that it was going to be me. And when my time came, I took advantage of it, and ain't looking back."