Trust forged on the football practice fields at West Virginia University a decade ago continues to resonate between John Pennington, the new receivers coach at Concord University, and his boss, head coach Garin Justice.
“Me and Garin played together for four years,” Pennington said on Tuesday. “We were teammates. We know we could trust each other on the field, and that’s something that carries over.
“A coaching staff is a team, in itself. It just feels like old times again, that way.”
Joining the Mountaineers as a walk-on from Charleston, Pennington’s hard work earned him letters in 2003 and 2004 under then-coach Rich Rodriguez.
He went on to coach football in various capacities at West Virginia Wesleyan, West Virginia Tech and West Virginia State. Sitting in the Carter Center at Concord, he joked, “This is my first non-West-Virginia-named school.”
Commenting that he was “born and raised” in the Mountain State, he said, “I love it here. I’ll always be here. This is where my heart is, my family and everything, so I will always be here.”
Justice, a former offensive tackle at WVU, said, “John grew up an hour-and-a-half up the road. He’s been at West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan, West Virginia Tech, so he’s very familiar with the area, the surroundings, and the type of program that Concord is.”
Pennington said his knowledge of the coaches and the schemes run at small colleges in the state will be useful.
“Being at this level, and understanding how things work here and recruiting and all the other things ... is going to be very helpful. I feel comfortable at this level and in this league, so I’m definitely excited to play those teams and really, really looking forward to getting back out there.”
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The receivers working out this spring make up “a very young group, very talented,” he said. “We’re just trying to work out the kinks right now, and get those young guys brought up to speed. They have to mature very quickly.”
“(R)ight now they’re trying to find out who’s going to be ‘that guy,’ and that’s always good. The competition will make them much better players.
“There’s a bit of a learning curve, but the talent is there. Not only the talent, but these guys love to play the game.”
There are “slight changes” from the system employed in Concord’s successful last two years on the gridiron, but the goal is for players “to be able not be thinking out there, and just playing ball ... for 80 snaps, or however many snaps it is.
“The main thing for receivers is to get open and win matchups (with defenders). Another big part for the long runs is to be able to block. That’s one thing I can definitely bring to the table, because I did a lot of that in college. I know how to do that pretty well.
“As long as they do their job to the best of their ability, they’ll be able to produce,” he said.
The passing game will try to produce without its leading wideout of the past two seasons. Thomas Mayo, a two-time all-American, has reportedly left the team for another school.
When that subject came up, Pennington said he was “only going to talk about players who are part of the program.”
Horace Daughtry caught 34 balls for 610 yards last fall. Pennington said, “He’s one that knows what to do out there. Carlton Colson is another one who has taken some snaps, and Keith Huff.
“But other than those three, we have to find some guys that are ready to play now — and there are some good young players with a lot of ability (here). It’s just going to take some good spring ball, and they’ll be ready in the fall to go ahead and make that move.”
This spring, he said, “We’ve had some practices (in which) the offense does well, some the defense does well, which is typical in the spring. It’s a good sign that both sides are competing and playing well.
“We’ve had days when we’ve looked unstoppable, and we’ve had days when we looked like we couldn’t do anything right. That’s what you’re going to have with a young crew. We realize that.
“It’s great teaching tools, from the film, when they make mistakes. It’s also good, when they have a good day, and we can say ‘We need to build off of this.’ ”
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Pennington, a graduate of George Washington High School, described playing for the Mountaineers as “a dream come true ... something I dreamed of my entire life ... an amazing experience.”
Reflecting on the obstacles faced by a walk-on at a Division I program, he said, “I was very fortunate to have the support that I had around me and was able to overcome a lot to play at that level. ...
“I’m really glad that I chose that route, because I learned a lot about the game, and how things are supposed to be done.”
“Being a part of the beginning of the Rich Rodriguez era probably was the hardest thing,” he said. “Coach Justice got there after that initial spring. Me and Garin and the people in my class and his class were kind of the people that established that program.”
He had finished his eligibility and was a spectator on the night West Virginia, with Justice at tackle, defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta.
“I felt a lot of pride in the fact that they won a BCS bowl,” he said. “I would have liked to have had that ring, and be a part of it. But I know that I played a major role in getting it to where it needed to go.”
Pennington is remembered by many WVU fans for a 28-yard touchdown catch against Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 2003, which helped West Virginia to a 52-31 Backyard Brawl win.
It was his second, and last, TD reception as a Mountaineer, though the next season he caught five passes for 48 yards in a single game against Boston College in Morgantown.
He got help breaking into coaching from a former Concord assistant football coach, Herb Hand, who was tight ends coach and a recruiting coordinator at WVU in 2005. He let Pennington know about a graduate assistant job at Wesleyan.
He’s been working his way south ever since. Last year he was at WVU-Tech as defensive backs coach and strength-and-conditioning coach. He also played for the West Virginia Lightning semi-pro football team, evolving into its offensive coordinator.
He said he became good friends with Concord defensive coordinator Paul Price when they both worked at Wesleyan. He raved about the togetherness of the CU staff, which includes three new assistant coaches and a new graduate assistant.
“I feel like it’s amazing, really, how everyone is getting along,” Pennington said. “Garin does a great job of motivating us to do our job well. I think it’s a camaraderie like I’ve never been a part of, and that’s why I’m so excited.”
— Contact Tom Bone at