Linebacker Anfernee Jennings a Key Player Regarding Crimson Tide's Playoff Chances
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jennings sees it each and every day.
He takes a shower, it’s there. He bushes his teeth, it’s in his face.
It probably makes him want to spit.
Yet that’s the way he needs it, the way he must have it this season. He’s made sure the constant reminder is always staring back at him, and in a place that can’t be avoided. It’s the at-home equivalent to strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran screaming “What are you going to do about it?” non-stop.
On his bathroom mirror, written with a permanent Sharpie pen so it can’t be wiped off, is the score of last year’s National Championship Game: 44-16. After the LSU game there might be another score next to it, 46-41.
“It just motivates me, and how to take on my day,” Jennings said.
This from a guy who was already considered one of the hardest working players on the Crimson Tide.
One of the biggest misperceptions about the 2019 Alabama football team has to do with the redshirt senior linebacker, who was hailed by some as suddenly being elevated to the role of defensive leader after junior interior linebacker Dylan Moses went down with a major knee injury.
Jennings already was. Moses got the attention because he was becoming the quarterback of the defense, relaying calls from the sideline and in charge of both making adjustments and certain that everyone was executing the same thing.
Only Jennings was already entrenched as the Crimson Tide’s true defensive leader. There’s a reason why Nick Saban brought him to SEC Media Days in 2018.
“He means a lot,” Moses said during fall camp. “Everyone looks at me like I’m the leader, which I am, but I really look at him like he’s the head guy.”
Coming into this season, Jennings already had 23 starts under his belt, to go with 111 tackles and 22 tackles for loss. He had seen and experienced just about everything imaginable, including suffering a devastating knee injury against Clemson in the 2017 College Football Playoff semifinal.
That his teammates went and got him from the sideline and pushed his wheelchair around the postgame celebration after Alabama defeated Georgia in the subsequent title game was telling about what they felt about him.
“When you talk about an Alabama defense, to me just watching them over the years and just studying, I think when you watch it, it’s a relentless effort,” defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. “It’s guys who are just mentally tough regardless of whether there’s a tackle for a loss or a tackle, how he lines up, how he plays the next play.
“Then there’s the physical toughness like when you play at Alabama and you see that on tape — how physical those guys are — that doesn’t start on Saturday. That’s done every day and that’s Anfernee Jennings to me. Whether it’s individual or team run and we’re going 11 on 11 or it’s Saturday, it’s the same speed. He’s got the most focus in our meetings. His attention to detail, he busts his butt and it shows up on Saturday. To me, he’s got out what he put in. It’s invaluable to have a guy like that, who is a good player.”
Actually, Jennings has been nothing short of invaluable to the 2019 team, especially when considering the numerous setbacks to the defensive front seven. In addition to Moses, senior interior linebacker Josh McMillion also went down with a knee injury, while junior defensive end LaBryan Ray suffered a foot injury requiring surgery. All three were replaced by freshmen, who combined with nose tackle D.J. Dale outnumbered the veteran starters.
With redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis also coming off a torn ACL, and hyperextended his knee at South Carolina on Sept. 14, Jennings probably had a strong feeling of déjà vu due to the setbacks Alabama has had at linebacker during his career.
But he knows better than anyone on how to deal with them.
During the first seven games of this season, he was named a defensive player of the week by the coaching staff six times. Had there been a midseason most consistent player honor he probably would have won, edging out safety Xavier McKinney.
“Anfernee Jennings and Xavier McKinney, those two guys have tried to pick up some of the slack when some of these other guys who were older more experienced players who had leadership roles aren’t present,” said Saban, “and I think both of those guys have played very well.
“What you don’t see is how they’re impacting and affecting other players on the team who probably need their support. It helps the younger players have confidence when they feel like the older players are confident in them.”
With Lewis back in the fold for Texas A&M, the Aggies got a taste of what Alabama’s linebacker corps was supposed to be like this season. The Crimson Tide notched five sacks, with Lewis beating Jennings an extra time as they combined for three. The others were all by freshmen (defensive lineman Christian Barmore had one solo, while defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe and interior linebacker Shane Lee split the other).
Against Tennessee, the team’s top three tacklers were all linebackers, with developing freshman Christian Harris having eight, Jennings and Lewis each with seven, and Lee tying McKinney for fourth with six.
The defense as a whole struggled against LSU, but Jennings had two of the Crimson Tide's five sacks, while Lewis was credited with three pressures and a fumble recovery.
"I feel like it's just because me and Anfernee have a real strong bond,” Lewis said. “Coming in as a freshman he kind of took me under his wing along with Christian Miller and Jamey Mosley. That bond we built just being behind guys like Ryan [Anderson] and Tim [Williams] kind of made us grow together because we saw how they bonded and we knew that at one point it would be our time to be those edge guys.
“So we play for each other. We model our game just like how Ryan and Tim did."
So defensive leader? Absolutely, and every player on the Crimson Tide will say so.
That’s the other thing Jennings sees in the mirror, a guy who will key Alabama’s chances of still making the College Football Playoff.
“I've been a leader on his defense for years now,” Jennings said.