Ed. note: Seth began this before we realized I had more free time to take care of it (see: other recent posts), so this is a bit of a franken-post.
After a tumultuous offseason, Florida State is off to an ugly 1-3 start under new coach Mike Norvell. Why are we talking about the Noles? Their failures on and off the field have impacted recruiting in the far-off locale of Ann Arbor, as top-100 Jacksonville (FL) Sandalwood Linebacker Branden Jennings announced his commitment to Michigan this afternoon.
The flip comes not long after Jennings decommitted from FSU, where his father, Bradley Jennings Sr., was the starting middle linebacker in 1999. He is older brother, Bradley Jennings Jr., starts at linebacker for Miami (YTM); Bradley Jr. also decommitted from FSU during his recruitment.
Jennings is the 21st commitment in Michigan's 2021 class and the fourth linebacker, joining four-star TN OLB Junior Colson, four-star FL ILB Jaydon Hood, and three-star IL OLB Tyler McLaurin. At #82 overall in the 247 Composite, he slots in just above Colson as the fourth-highest M commit in the rankings. He's expected to enroll early.
|4*, 5.9, #52 OVR,
#4 ILB, #11 FL
|4*, 86, #67 OVR,
#8 OLB, #13 FL
|4*, 93, #160 OVR
#9 OLB, #20 FL
|4*, 0.9645, #82 OVR,
#6 OLB, #13 FL
Bottom row is Seth’s conversion of the above to a 5-star scale. Links are to profiles.
Rivals and ESPN are particularly bullish on Jennings, placing him not far outside their top 50 overall prospects. While 247 is the relative skeptic, they still have him well within their top 200 overall. He reached as high as #66 overall in the Top247 last spring before dropping near his current placement this February.
There's some disagreement about whether Jennings in an inside or outside linebacker, with some suggesting he may become more of a rush end. All three sites list him around 6’3", 225 pounds—247 adds a half-inch.
[Hit THE JUMP for scouting, video, and the rest.]
As you'd expect when two members of your family play high-level college ball, Jennings got on the scene early, getting a post-camp mention from Rivals back in January of 2018:
Jennings just finished up his freshman season of high school and is just starting to make a name for himself in the recruiting world. But considering his father Bradley Jennings was an All-American linebacker at Florida State and his older brother Bradley Jr. just finished his first season on campus at Miami, it's clear football in in his genes. Jennings moves well in space and looks to have the frame to grow into quite the prospect.
Rivals is still using his picture from this event in recent posts (and as his profile photo); this is their last real scouting on him.
After his sophomore season, Jennings had picked up significant interest, with the likes of Ohio State and Stanford adding national flavor to an offer sheet that included local favorites FSU and Miami. Texas's 247 site did a thorough rundown of his sophomore tape:
Strengths: Jennings has a large frame with great length and room to add more weight. Jennings is a physical, downhill player who can fill inside run lanes and stop runners in their tracks. Jennings is tough to move at the point of attack, and he causes plays to frequently move off-script because of his presence on the field. Jennings shows great instincts as a blitzing linebacker, and he times things well when shooting gaps at the snap of the ball. Jennings has the size to play inside, but he has the frame projectability to grow into a rush-backer or edge player. Jennings is a strong athlete with size and instincts, and he should be trending up as he gains more experience.
Areas for improvement: Jennings could work to improve his initial explosion at the next level. He will also need to tune up his fundamental tackling ability as he prefers to lower a shoulder instead of wrapping up.
This is the first, and not last, hint that Jennings could grow into an edge defender; it's also the first mention of some athletic limitations, which will come up again. On the positive side, his strength and instincts are repeatedly praised.
Jennings's ability to violently shed blocks and finish plays with authority stood out to 247's Miami insider, Andrew Ivins, who said he was a "guy Miami needs to land" after taking in a Sandalwood game last fall:
I was up in Jacksonville last week to watch Oakleaf take on Sandalwood. Miami Top247 defensive end commit Chantz Williams absolutely stole the show making plays on both sides of the ball, but Jennings was just as impressive. The younger brother of current UM linebacker Bradley Jennings Jr. is ranked by 247Sports as the nation's No. 2 inside linebacker in the Class of 2021 and moves like someone with those type of accolades blowing up blocks and making multiple tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
It was around this time that Jennings visited Michigan and his head coach, Adam Geis, started giving a lot of quotes about how well he fits as a Big Ten linebacker and a player in Michigan's scheme specifically. He gave this quote to 247's Steve Wiltfong, not a partisan reporter:
“He likes the Big Ten a lot,” Geis said. “He visited Ohio State and visited Michigan.
“He’s a big, very physical, inside linebacker. I think he’d be a very strong Big Ten inside linebacker. In my opinion that is the Cinderella slipper. You can’t get a better fit than that.” ...
“He’s very, very mean and very, very physical,” Geis said. “In my opinion he’s that Michigan downhill, old-school linebacker.
“I’d love to see him play at Michigan. I told his dad yesterday I’d love to see him in that winged helmet and that Michigan blue. My dad (Buddy Geis) coached Jim Harbaugh in the NFL years ago. I would not mind seeing him in that Michigan Big Ten uniform.
Yes, the elder Geis was an assistant QBs coach with the Colts from 1996-97. Football connections pop up in unexpected places. The younger Geis, meanwhile, also threw out a quote to Sam Webb that'll strike scheme people as strange, since Don Brown does not run a 3-4 defense:
"Really, he needs to be in a 3-4 defense because he actually can play all four spots,” Geis added. “He can play your weakside, your strongside outside, he can playing inside obviously… that's where he's been playing but we've brought him off the edge. He's just one of those rare cats. It'll get him on the field a lot faster at the next level. To go to the (NFL) level I think the versatility will obviously be huge for him. Them needing four linebackers at all times in the game… guys that can run. You've gotta have some size obviously, but those edge guys have to be able to run. (Michigan) is a perfect scheme for him. It really is. Any 3-4 scheme.
Either there's a major shift coming despite a lack of true nose tackles or this is more a discussion of how Jennings could be utilized as both a traditional inside linebacker and a rush end in Brown's three-lineman pass rush packages (aka the Uche position). I'm assuming the latter.
When Jennings picked FSU over Miami, Auburn, and Arkansas in February, he was on the receiving end of a somewhat breathless rundown of his junior highlights from Noles247. While I don't agree with their high praise of his sideline-to-sideline range, I thought this was valuable insight into his potential to finish plays off the blitz:
Beyond being just a thumper inside, Jennings shows the ability to bend, accelerate and stop quickly, and to play under control.
Note how he’s able to gather himself, change direction and breakdown in order to get to the QB on this play.
His coach took the opportunity to praise his charge about most everything:
“I just need to make sure he stays healthy and in three-and-a-half years he is going to be the third pick in the first round,” Geis joked, half serious. “When you see how big this joker is at 17 years old, and his work ethic, he never misses school, never misses practice, never misses weights, he always dresses nice for school. He is without a doubt, the complete package. You always have kids that bring a lot to the table, but are missing that one thing, that isn’t him. That dude checks every box.
“He is a sharp kid. He is a great conversation. He is well-rounded. He loves football, he is great at it, but it is far from the only thing he is,” Geis continued to gush. “Everybody likes him. He has a presence. On the field, league of his own.”
Jennings got in at least one camp appearance before the pandemic, getting mixed reviews from Ivins because of some coverage issues at the Under Armour Orlando camp:
Branden Jennings was with the linebacker group. There's no question that the Jacksonville Sandalwood standout can come down hill, but it would be interesting to see the FSU commit rush the passer as he struggled at times in coverage when manned up with much quicker running backs.
That concern made it into his full 247 scouting report from national analyst Barton Simmons:
Long levered, thick linebacker with bulk to naturally play in the middle and the frame to potentially grow into an edge rusher. Pops on tape with his physicality and violence on contact. One of the hardest hitters in the 2021 recruiting cycle. Plays with great effort and motor. Attacks blockers with physicality. Efforts to re-route receiving threats. Good range between the tackles, thanks in part to wing span. Bends well for a bigger linebacker but does show some stiffness in space. Looks heavy-footed at times and is a long strider that takes some build-up to find a top speed in pursuit. Can get exposed in coverage. Physically imposing inside linebacker that has some projectablility to move down to the line of scrimmage. Power Five starter with NFL Draft upside.
This sounds pretty old school. I get "Mike McCray but better at blitzing" vibes. That may scare people who remember certain plays against Saquon Barkley but McCray was a key cog in some great defenses and functioned well when not asked to perform tasks outside of his skillset. Jennings should have more upside, especially if he finds a way to improve his athleticism (not easy, not impossible).
After decommitting from Florida State, Jennings listed a top three of Michigan, Miami (FL), and Clemson; while he held offers from all three, I'm not sure the third was committable at the time. Ivins indicates that Michigan was the school making easily the most effort in communication among the three. Sam Webb reported that Ole Miss jumped into the fray after the FSU decommitment; Chris Partridge recruited Jennings when he was on staff for the Wolverines.
247 also lists offers from Auburn, LSU, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Stanford, Texas, USC, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Duke, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Nebraska, Pitt, Purdue, Rutgers, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Texas A&M, along with a handful of others. While, again, I'm not sure all of those were committable at this point, that's a lengthy list of good football programs.
Sandalwood consistently produces a handful of D-I recruits, including its fair share of Power 5 signees. In addition to the Jennings brothers, notable alums include 2005 RB Maurice "Not Beanie" Wells (Ohio State), 2006 S Jamar Hornsby (Florida), 2013 DE Demarcus Walker (FSU), and a pair of four-star 2020 prospects, CB Jahquez Robinson (Alabama) and QB Jeffrey Simms (Georgia Tech).
Jennings put up some impressive numbers as a junior:
He had 135 tackles, eight sacks, and 12 tackles for loss during his junior year.
That followed a sophomore season in which he recorded 136 tackles and six sacks. Dude's been productive.
FAKE 40 TIME
None listed. He doesn't show top-end burst on tape; you won't confuse him for a Devin Bush or Cam McGrone.
Sophomore highlights and single-game reels can be found on his Hudl page.
PREDICTION BASED ON FLIMSY EVIDENCE
Jennings is an interesting case because of both his versatility and his limitations. If he's adequate in coverage, he could be a thumping MIKE, in which case he'll be thrown into the pile alongside Charles Thomas, this year's freshmen, and his 2021 linebacker classmates to eventually replace Cam McGrone. If he's more of a rush end, he'd be the highest-rated player the Wolverines have had in the Uche role. A lot depends on his physical and athletic development once he arrives on campus.
UPSHOT FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS
It's up to 21 commits, and I have to imagine they're done at linebacker. Projecting the size of the class is a waste of time with the way the pandemic has impacted scholarships. The three most important targets for Michigan right now are MI RB Donovan Edwards, MI DT Rayshaun Benny, and NJ DT George Rooks.