Michigan’s latest commitment was one of the most surprising top 100 talents to fall into their laps in recent history. Four-star Branden Jennings is the fourth linebacker in Michigan’s class, and the highest rated. He’s a strong, hard hitter but his game will look a little different to Michigan fans watching the linebackers in the past few seasons.
For this scouting report, I watched a Sandalwood game from just a couple weeks ago against Clearwater Academy International. Sandalwood won a close one 39-38, in which Jennings had 15 tackles.
Jennings has had excellent production from the middle linebacker spot for Sandalwood the past couple years on varsity, posting back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles. As a junior, Jennings racked up 135 tackles, eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
But I don’t see Jennings sticking at the MIKE position for Michigan. At 6-foot-3.5, Jennings is an inch and half taller than any other linebacker in the last two classes, all of which stand either 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2.
Jennings also isn’t the missile with great burst and sideline-to-sideline speed Michigan wants from its middle linebackers, which is where he plays in high school. Instead, Jennings is a long strider who sometimes looks like he isn’t moving too fast but closes ground in a flash.
A couple times in this game, Jennings forced inaccurate throws from the quarterback by converting from a spy to a rusher and quickly closing the gap between them.
I think Jennings looked the best when he was blitzing. He has great bend, making him able to get around offensive linemen without gaining too much depth and closing the pocket.
While this wasn’t a pass play, Jennings’ bend was on display for this run stuff. Blitzing past the right guard, Jennings quickly swims past him to get into the backfield. With the running back already getting to the line of scrimmage, Jennings bends around the edge and dives for his ankles to take the back down.
Jennings also showed great body control while making open field tackles. When pursuing ball carriers in the open field, Jennings was great at staying square and not biting on jukes or cutbacks.
He plays this zone read excellently, exchanging with the crashing defensive end to string the quarterback outside. Jennings stays with the quarterback as he fakes cutting upfield, then takes him down for a small loss.
It’s when Jennings is playing in the box that things get hairy. Time after time, he was sucked in by misdirection in the backfield and got cut off to the ball from an offensive lineman climbing to the second level.
Jennings has to learn how to stack and shed, which is getting control of the blocker by locking them out with his long arms and tossing them to the side when he finds the ball. Too often, Jennings let the blockers get up in him and gain control.
When he did disengage, he would try to go under the blockers instead of over the top downfield. This took him right out of the play since he doesn’t have the explosiveness to catch up to the ball carrier.
The inside linebacker to the close side of the field, Jennings disengages from the left tackle coming to block him, but instead of taking an angle downfield to catch the running back, he cuts underneath and dooms himself by losing so much ground.
Eventually, Jennings got frustrated by constantly getting cut off from plays and used his strength to rock a guard backwards and plug up the running back’s hole.
Why Jennings didn’t do this more often, I don’t know. But he showed a great understanding of leverage and strength to blow up that play without even having to disengage.
Putting all of Jennings’ traits together, I am firmly in the camp of moving him to defensive end or the SAM linebacker at least. With his length, strength and excellent bend, I think Jennings could be a terror off the edge for Michigan.
His core linebacking abilities still have a long way to develop, and I’m not sure he has the instincts to stick at the MIKE or WILL in Michigan’s system. He’s not great at diagnosing plays and can’t stack and shed, so putting him in a sub package as a pass-rushing SAM would also make sense.
Overall, I think Jennings’ No. 82 national ranking is a little high. I like Junior Colson and Jaydon Hood’s film more, so this is a luxury pick up. David Ojabo, who came to Michigan as a defensive end and recently moved to SAM, could be a good comparison for what Jennings’ path looks like.