Ben Jennings has patiently waited for his chance to become the feature back at Mercyhurst University.
Until this season, Jennings was an understudy to Richard Stokes, Mercyhurst's all-time rushing leader. Stokes rushed for 3,381 yards on 782 yards during his Lakers career.
"I've been in the shadow of Richard Stokes the last three years," said Jennings, a Trinity High School graduate. "I'm ready to step into the role he held the last four years."
It was a bit frustrating for Jennings, but this 5-foot-7, 178-pound tailback took it all in stride and learned everything he could from Stokes.
"It was a great learning experience for me," Jennings said. "The biggest thing I learned from Richard was the importance of patient. It's so important in college football to let the play develop and follow your blockers. It's much different than high school ball."
Jennings was a three-year starter at Trinity. He owns school records for season rushing (1,927 yards), career rushing (3,302 yards), season touchdowns (22), and career touchdowns (43). He was a second team Associated Press All-State selection his senior year.
"I was a two-way starter my sophomore year," said Jennings, who also played cornerback that year. "I also started on defense in my junior season, until I suffered an injury at midseason. At that point, the coaches felt it was best to have me play one way on offense."
Jennings made several college visits, but made Mercyhurst his choice after visiting the campus.
"I really felt comfortable when I first met coach Schaetzle," Jennings said. "I felt at home when I visited the campus. That's what I based my decision on."
Jennings has played in all but one game since his freshman year, but mostly in a special teams role. In 2006, he carried the ball 12 times for 57 yards and one touchdown. He also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in a game against Wayne State.
In 2007, Jennings ranked second on the team with 52 carries and 279 yards. He also scored two touchdowns.
Jennings was also the Lakers' second most productive back last season, as his number of carries almost doubled. He rushed for 571 yards on 98 carries and scored four touchdowns.
"We feel Ben is ready to step in and become our feature back," Schaetzle said. "Ben did a fine job for us last year when he got a chance to carry the ball. His yards per carry [5.8] was very good. He also did a fine job blocking.
"The thing that impresses me the most about Ben is that he's a model student-athlete. He's got excellent grades and has never been in trouble. That's the kind of leadership you want from your seniors."
Jennings is only one of four returning starters on offense.
"The offensive line is one of our biggest concerns coming into the season," Jennings said. "We have two starters back and two others who saw significant playing time last year. It may take some time for the offense to mesh."
That was evident in Mercyhurst's season debut on Saturday against non-conference foe Wayne State. Jennings scored the Lakers first touchdown on a 1-yard dive, but the final result was not good, as Wayne State recorded a 31-13 victory.
Wayne State shut down Mercyhurst's running game, as the Lakers had only 52 yards on 24 carries. Jennings carried the ball 14 times and was held to 19 yards. He also caught two passes for 9 yards and returned two kickoffs for 39 yards.
"Ben's style is completely different than Richard's," Schaetzle said. "Ben plays a lot bigger than he is. He's only 180 pounds, but is very physical for his size. He's a tough, explosive athlete."
Mercyhurst made its Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference debut last season after moving from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
"The transition from the GLIAC to the PSAC was easier than a lot of people think because our travel schedule was much better," Jennings said. "All the games in Michigan were six, seven and eight hours [driving time away]. We even had one trip that was 16 hours.
"Our longest trip in the PSAC is six hours to Philadelphia. In fact, it was a relief that we didn't have the burden of long bus trips to wear us out before a game."
Mercyhurst finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Western Division in its PSAC debut. The Lakers posted a 5-2 mark in division games and completed the season with a 7-4 record.
"The competition was very similar with the upper-tier teams," said Jennings, when asked to compare the two conferences. "The difference is that there's a bigger drop-off between the upper- and lower-tier teams in the PSAC. All the teams in the GLIAC were capable of winning the conference [title]. That's not the case in the PSAC."
Jennings will graduate in June with a degree in sports medicine, but plans to continue his education.
"I want to go into physical therapy, so I will be going back to school for my graduate degree," Jennings said.
First published on September 3, 2009 at 12:00