The transition from college to the professional level is a challenging one for rookies entering the NFL, but not all of them have the same steep learning curve ahead. Take Anfernee Jennings, one of three third-round picks invested by the New England Patriots during last week’s draft and a player arriving in Foxborough from a school that has considerable similarities to the one run by head coach Bill Belichick: Alabama.
Those similarities exist because of one man and his connection to Belichick, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. Saban and Belichick worked alongside each other with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s: Belichick served as the team’s head coach, and he hired Saban to work as his defensive coordinator. Along the way, the two men built a relationship that is still going strong almost three decades later.
The lessons they learned from each other have also impacted how they run their respective programs in New England and Alabama — something Jennings talked about during his introductory media conference call: “The level of respect for both coaches, it’s top of the chart. [...] I’ve done my research and I know that they worked together early in [Saban’s] career. I know what type of coach Coach Saban is, and I look forward to playing with Coach Belichick and getting to Foxborough and getting to work.”
Jennings played 54 games under the former Belichick assistant and received a first-hand look at some of the fundamental principles that are also part of the so-called “Patriot Way” in New England — the now-famous “Do Your Job”-mantra being one of them. For the 23-year-old, doing his job meant playing numerous roles on Alabama’s defense: he lined up on the edge on both sides of the formation, was regularly moved back to play off the ball, and also saw time as an inside linebacker.
Jennings performed well in this role over his three years as a starter, registering a combined 175 tackles (32.5 of which for loss) as well as 15.5 sacks and 20 pass-breakups. He regularly was around the ball, no matter where he originally aligned, and it seems as if the Patriots are planning on taking advantage of his versatile skillset as well on a defense that lost hybrid linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins to unrestricted free agency.
“I talked to Coach Belichick [on Friday night]. He plans on using me kind of the same way that I was used at Alabama — using my versatility, being able to stack it back off the ball and line up on the edge and move around, making the most of wherever he puts me,” Jennings said during his introductory presser. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity, and I look forward to it and I’m ready to get to work.”
His versatile skillset and experience in a pro-style organization are just two of the positives about Jennings that likely caught the Patriots’ eye during the pre-draft process; his maturity may very well be another. Not only did he earn two college degrees while at Alabama — Jennings graduated with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science in December 2018, and in public health a year later — he also raised a son, Austin, that was born in December 2019.
“I took advantage of my time here at Alabama, in the classroom and I feel like on the field. I really grew as a player and matured on and off the field. I have a son, and I just look forward to being the best version of myself each and every day and being the best father I can be, best teammate I can be, player and the list goes on,” he said. “But I’m just thankful for this opportunity, once again, and I can’t wait to get to Foxborough and get to work.”