It isn't often that a defender from the University of Alabama flies under the radar. The Tide are so firmly entrenched into the national spotlight that damn near every defender who offers potential to the National Football League gets 1st-round hype at some point along the way. We've seen it happen with current Tide defenders such as Trevon Diggs, Raekwon Davis, Dylan Moses and Xavier McKinney -- as well as former Tide defenders such as Quinnen Williams, Mack Wilson, Deionte Thompson, Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick, DaRon Payne, Reuben Foster, Jon Allen, Marlon Humphrey, Tim Williams, Eddie Jackson, Rashaan Evans -- okay you get the point.
Not all of these members of the Tide factory of pro defenders went in the 1st-round. Heck, the most accomplished of the group is Eddie Jackson, who slid into Day 3 of the NFL Draft. But the point remains: at one point or another, there's been 1st-round hype on enough Crimson Tide defenders to require both hands and both feet to count.
But yet we haven't seen that level of hype for OLB Anfernee Jennings, who is quietly piecing together his best season to date with the Tide. This isn't to suggest that Anfernee Jennings will go on to be a 1st-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft -- but I'd be willing to bet you my lunch money that he ends up being a darn good pro football player for someone. Jennings has notched 4 sacks and 7 tackles for loss through the Tide's first six games of the season -- a year in which Alabama will need to bank on Jennings' experience and leadership quite significantly if they're going to return to yet another College Football Playoff. Because the Tide now list true freshman in more than half of the starting spots in their defensive front seven, a promising investment into the future but not a move that will provide consistency and stability when Alabama's opposition has the ball in 2019.
And so the pressure falls back on veterans like Terrell Lewis, the previously mentioned Davis and Jennings to lead by example. So far, so good. Jennings' latest outing of the season was his best yet -- a dominant performance against Texas A&M in which Jennings' presence on the field was impossible to miss. Whether it was ducking inside on a quarterback keeper to wrap up QB Kellen Mond for a tackle for loss or chasing down Mond on a scramble several yards downfield to deliver a crushing blow on the Aggie quarterback, Jennings was everywhere.
The challenge for Jennings with his projection to the NFL is that he doesn't possess a lot of the buzz qualities that seem to move the needle for college pass rushers. His explosive power is good, but not great. His first step isn't going to overwhelm vertical pass sets with consistency and his lateral agility in the phone booth works but isn't something he'll hang his hat on. And in a deep pass rusher class in 2020, the byproduct is everyone has seemingly forgotten about Anfernee Jennings.
My advice? Don't.
Jennings' plus qualities often allow him to do the "dirty work" off the edge. He'll set the edge versus the run with consistency. His length allows him to "long arm" pass blockers back into the lap of the quarterback. His hand punch possesses notable power, allowing him to reset the line of scrimmage and play in the backfield. And Jennings is leading by example, walking the walk while only talking the talk when he's needed. His personality off the field matches the presence he provides on it: he's humble, hard working and focused on one thing -- doing his job to the best of his ability.
As of late for the Tide, that job description includes more disruption than ever. Over Jennings' last 14 games going back into 2018, he's totaled:
- 7.0 sacks
- 15.5 tackles for loss
- 9 passes defensed
And during that same timeframe, Jennings has notched at least a full tackle for loss in 12 of Alabama's 14 games. Set the edge. Defend the run. Get your hands up if you're not getting home as a pass rusher. Yep -- Jennings thrives with all the little things that construct a reliable defender along the line and don't need to come with 4.5 speed or a 40" vertical.
The last 14 games is significant: remember that Jennings' 2017 season was cut dramatically short due to a traumatic knee injury against Clemson, one that caused damage to the artery in his left leg and produced a blood clot before he went under the knife. How bad was the injury? Some medical estimates suggest that if Jennings hadn't had the artery damage and subsequent blood clot diagnosed within 8-10 hours of when it finally was sniffed out (less than 24 hours after the injury), Jennings could have been forced to have his leg amputated.
And yet Jennings played in all 15 games in the 2018 season in a year that started less than 9 months after such a severe injury. By midseason, Jennings' confidence was back -- and the production that's followed since is too good to ignore.
Jennings' feats of athleticism aren't going to blow your mind and his athletic testing this coming February is most likely going to be par for the course. But don't sleep on Anfernee Jennings -- with or without the 1st-round hype, he's got the makings of a reliable pro and a plus addition to your favorite NFL team's locker room next spring.