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West Virginia State quarterback Austin Hensley throws a pass against the University of Charleston in the 2018 season opener.

The weather might be hot. The practices might be long. They’re not always fun. But West Virginia State quarterback Austin Hensley has a smile on his face.

“Watching him out here, he’s like a little kid,” WVSU coach John Pennington said, “getting another opportunity to play football with his boys, his teammates and play the game that he loves.”

The path to those big smiles wasn’t always filled with smiles. When Hensley jogs to the field for State’s season opener Sept. 5 at Frostburg State, it will be the first time he has played a game since last season’s opener against Charleston. A foot injury robbed him of the rest of the 2018 campaign.

He’s healthy now, though, and can’t wait for the season to begin to lead the Yellow Jackets in his final season under center.

Until the fourth quarter of last year’s UC game, Hensley was putting on a performance his team knew he could, completing 22 of 34 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Yet, in that fourth quarter, he headed to the sidelines with a foot injury.

He didn’t head back out to the field again last season.

As Hensley healed, he watched the Yellow Jackets finish 6-5 — the first time since 2007-08 that State earned consecutive winning seasons — behind quarterback Faustino Saucedo. Hensley didn’t shrink into a corner in that time, though. He stayed right in the thick of things on the sideline, advice he got from former Marshall and NFL quarterback Chad Pennington.

John Pennington had talked to the two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year and asked if he could give Hensley a pep talk. So, soon after the injury, Hensley got a phone call from the former Jets and Dolphins signal-caller.

That call, Hensley said, meant a lot.

“He pretty much told me to still be a leader and still be involved,” Hensley said. “A lot of guys, when they get injured, they kind of disappear a little bit. You don’t hear from them as much.

“He told me he was still involved, which helped his team tremendously.”

The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish third in the Mountain East Conference by its coaches, and much of that had to do with Hensley’s return under center. John Pennington knows the talent the former Hurricane standout has and is working with him to maximize it.

“I’m holding him to the standard of an elite quarterback,” Pennington said. “There are very few days where he walks off the field feeling really good. He’s a confident young man, but he’s very hard on himself and I’m very hard on him. We’re still fine-tuning things.

“But then you sit back and look at it and you’re like, ‘How did he do that? How did he put that ball there?’”

As hard as he might be on himself, Hensley still takes the time to step back and enjoy the opportunity. He’s excited for what this season could bring.

“I can just play ball and have fun with it,” Hensley said. “It’s just like me and my dad in the backyard again. That’s what it feels like. Getting out here and competing is what I love to do. It’s why you play college football.”

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.