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Dadeville's Anfernee Jennings put in the work through his high school years and into his collegiate career at Alabama before being drafted by the New England Patriots on Friday night.

When it comes to Anfernee Jennings’ time as a Dadeville Tiger, there’s no lack of stories about his athletic prowess from the people who knew him best back then.

Whether it was picking up the key to the weight room from his coach on weekends, moving to the middle of the line mid-game to thwart Tallassee’s rushing attack or getting off the line so quick an opposing lineman never even got in his pass set, Jennings provided plenty of moments that made an impression on the people around him.

Those memories have the people who spent so much time with him back in Dadeville excited about what’s to come after the New England Patriots selected the outside linebacker in the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday.

“We’re like family. We grew up on the same street, so I’ve been knowing him since birth,” said former Dadeville linebacker Tamarcus Russell. “He’s just a hard worker. We always worked hard. Where we come from in Alabama, we’re very physical people. On the field, we’re violent people, but off the field he’s going to be a great guy. On the field, he’s a different animal.”

Growing his game

As a veteran head coach, Dadeville’s Richard White had learned how detrimental it can be to put a freshman on the varsity team by the time Jennings was a freshman in 2011.

White said he and his assistant coaches were always hesitant to bring a ninth grader among the big boys for fear of them “losing their stinger” — being overwhelmed by the stage and not playing up to their potential. The player has to approach the situation with maturity, and they also have to be talented enough to hold their own.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Jennings to prove he was up to the challenge. He wowed his coaches early on with his work ethic, and pretty soon a Clemson coach offered him a scholarship just from looking at him.

“You kind of want to bring them along slowly, put them in there against more guys their age at the time and then work them up against some older guys and see how they handle it. He was able to do that,” White said. “He was able to go against juniors and seniors on our team and could pretty much hold his own. He’d get his little rear end whipped every now and then, but for the most part he could handle his own. We saw right then that he was going to be special.”

“Sometimes with eighth graders when they’re really athletic — especially when they dominate — they can come into our varsity and think (it would be easy). He didn’t really do that,” said Matt Harrison, Jennings’ defensive line coach at Dadeville. “He worked hard and realized he had to really push himself to be the best he could be. Of course, he did that. He ended up probably playing 50 percent of the time (his freshman year).”

Jennings showed a natural gift as a pass rusher even as a freshman, but with that came a curiosity and a want to get better. Rod Crayton, who was a Dadeville defensive lineman two years older, remembered him routinely asking the upperclassmen questions as he tried to sharpen his skills.

Jennings was surrounded by stellar talent on defense, and before too long he showed he was the next in line. As a sophomore he earned All-State honorable mention recognition on a 10-win Tigers squad, and by that point it was evident he was only going to get better. He racked up 171 total tackles, 43 quarterback hurries and seven sacks as a junior, which led to All-State first team honors.

By March 2014, Jennings had made up his mind on college. Personal visits from Alabama head coach Nick Saban and then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart really caught Jennings’ attention, and despite a constant effort from Clemson and a true charge from Arkansas he committed to the Crimson Tide.

Still, the success didn’t make Jennings content.

Jennings made it his mission to get even better before that fall — his senior year — which led to constant work to bulk up and get stronger. He did both, ultimately gaining 30 pounds, improving his bench max to 315 pounds and squat to 515, and dropping his 40-yard dash time to a cool 4.6 seconds.

Harrison believes Jennings took the example set by the Dadeville players before him as motivation to put in as much work as possible before his final season.

“He sort of led the charge and kept the charge going from the older guys in making sure that he was at every practice and workout during the summer. We’d give them let’s say four days off in the summer, but I don’t remember him missing any time. If I took them anywhere, he was the first one on the bus even though he had 20 or 30 scholarship offers,” Harrison said. “He listened to me on his diet, and then on the weekends he would get the key, and him and a bunch of guys would go down there and work on agility and speed, then work on defensive plays and working on their hands and then offensive plays and running routes.”

Even with high expectations surrounding him, Jennings excelled in his last year with the Tigers. He led the way for Dadeville with 156 total tackles, 12 sacks, eight pass deflections, one forced fumble and 58 quarterback hurries as the key player on a defense that only gave up 11.6 points per game.

Although the Tigers only won seven games, they topped eventual state champion Leeds in the regular season thanks to an excellent game from Jennings and ultimately reached the second round of the playoffs.

White recalled a special play from Jennings’ final postseason. In Dadeville’s first-round showdown with Trinity, White watched in awe as Jennings was on the opposite side of the field as the ball while the play unfolded before turning on the jets and chasing down the ball carrier in no time flat.

What was extraordinary by most players was just a regular play from Jennings.

“It was just the way he was able to handle and fight back,” Harrison said. “His toughness, his grit, his not wanting to lose and being a leader his senior year let me know eventually he was going to turn into the football player he is today.”

The Tide and the League

Jennings became a reliable defender with the Crimson Tide, but it didn’t come without several setbacks that could have easily derailed his quest to stand out.

Jennings saw his first year at Alabama put on hold due to back surgery, but he came back strong and contributed in his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. That second season, however, ended abruptly in the College Football Playoff semifinals thanks to a knee injury that also brought with it artery damage and a blood clot.

Despite suffering an injury that could have cost him his left leg — or even his life — Jennings showed absolutely no setbacks in the 2018 season, playing in all 15 of the Crimson Tide’s games and ending the year with 50 total tackles — including 13 for loss — 5.5 sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown.

Jennings finished his college career off strong in 2019. While serving as Alabama’s defensive signal caller, he recorded 83 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. His play earned him All-SEC first team honors and helped him become a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker.

“Lord have mercy, the boy has overcome a lot,” White said. “His work ethic kept him — it was the ol’ shoulder to the grindstone so to speak. He works his tail off at everything he does. He’s always been somebody you may overlook. He’s panned out real well. Here again, they’re talking about him maybe not going in one of the higher rounds, and I’m just telling you — somebody is going to get a steal here in the pro ranks. They just don’t realize the work ethic this kid has, how hard he’s going to work and what this game means to him.”

Jennings has always demonstrated humbleness even with his many accomplishments. Harrison said he talked to Jennings about his performance after nearly every other Alabama game, and the two would discuss what he needed to do better and how to make it happen. Russell said Jennings made it a point not too long ago to return to Dadeville and to talk to some of the students to show them they can make whatever their dreams are come true.

Jennings has never forgotten his roots after becoming a must-have recruit and later playing on a national championship team. Now that his NFL aspirations have taken him to one of the league’s premier franchises, those back home are just waiting for him to become a household name.

“I feel like he’s fixing to take advantage of the situation that he’s given, and I feel like whichever team chooses him is definitely going to get somebody who’s going to come in there, work hard and take advantage of everything,” Crayton said. “He’s going to do what he can to be the best he can be for the organization.”

“I’m really proud of him, and I knew it would happen. I could see something in him a long time ago,” Russell said. “He’s going to be that vocal leader from any place on the field, and I can see him developing that role as a captain in the NFL in his first two years. I think he’s going to be a captain.”

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