Profile: Sandalwood (Florida) linebacker Branden Jennings

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This is the first assignment from High School Football America’s GoFundMe campaign to designed to help high school sports reporters laid-off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bryant Roche from Jacksonville, Florida profiles 4-star college football prospect Braden Jennings, who has given his verbal commitment to Florida State.

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As promised, each GoFundMe assignment will be numbered like a piece of art. This is 1/200 – Jeff & Trish

by Bryant Roche

He is known to be quiet in the classroom and his highlight film’s side-angle stare is only a small glimpse of his alter-ego “Godzilla,” a Butkus Award contender in 2020, and quite possibly, high school football’s most dangerous player.

“He isn’t hitting people in the back and after the whistle; he just plays football really, really violently, but within the rules, man,” said Jacksonville Sandalwood head coach Adam Geis who completed his 17th season in 2019.  “I mean, you’re talking about a 6-4, 230 pound kid running fast, full-speed into somebody over and over.  That’s vicious, and he just plays at a different level…”

“I don’t think he’s got a goal to play in college; I think that’s just going to happen,” said Geis. “I think his goal is to play in the NFL, and like I said, I’ve seen a lot of kids come down the pipe. I have not seen a kid that has this work ethic that is this size that is this ability. I haven’t seen it, not the complete package.”

While the personal claim made by Branden Jennings that “nobody is working out like I am” may be impossible to prove, it may be equally hard to dispute, considering the junior puts up a mid-300’s bench press, squats about 600, and has achieved two all-city and all-state selections…after missing a freshman season at another school.

The son of former Florida State Seminole Bradley Sr., Jennings grew up in what turned out to be a football family of linebackers. After starring at Miami Carol City Senior High School, the father was a three-year starter for Bobby Bowden, winning a national championship in 1999 and being named First Team All-ACC in 2001, despite missing FSU’s final two games that year after arthroscopic knee surgery. On the evening of March 30, 2002, he was shot at and nearly killed by a carjacker while jogging in Miami’s Myrtle Grove Park.  Bradley never played in the NFL, but his love for the gridiron lives on through his sons, Branden and BJ.

“Being at Sandalwood in the time that I have, I’ve seen not only Branden, but his older brother who is at Miami [Hurricanes], Bradley[Jr.],” said defensive line coach Rolando Fines. “You can see the relationship that the older brother—that’s at Miami—had is essentially almost the same exact one that Branden currently has. It’s a relationship of him fueling every want and need because it’s not something where he’s pushing any sort of agenda or he’s trying to push his kids into what they’re doing.

“Both of the brothers love football just as much as their dad and are often times kind of egging him on to push them more than he is.  He’s a very fiery, emotional and energetic person, and you can see that mirrored directly through both of his kids, and they both take on that passion for the game that their father still has to this day.”

A little taller and a little bigger than his talented brother, BJ, Branden began playing at the age of five for his local Pop Warner team—the Mandarin Tigers—that he described as being “pretty big on winning” with “good coaches.” He would continue there until deciding to strap it up with his Dupont Middle School squad as an eighth grader, earning his first scholarship offer from UAB, before attending Atlantic Coast High School.

Due to a minor injury, he never actually suited up for the Stingrays, however, and transferred to his current school before the end of the second quarter his freshman year. With his brother having previously played there (class of 2017), Jennings entered the new situation with the Sandalwood staff already aware of his talents.

For those that weren’t yet convinced, his instincts, aggressiveness, and physicality came out as soon as he put the pads on. His presence pushed a worthy senior to the outside to make room for him at the Mike in their base 4-3 defense.  Another potential candidate for that position was put at safety.

That spring, offers from Miami (Florida), Tennessee, South Florida, Louisville, Boston College, and FSU all came before Jennings even took an official high school snap. On Nov. 25, it was tweeted that Ohio State joined the mix.

According to his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Doug Pariseau, Jennings’ most remarkable achievement as a sophomore was…

“I would say just being able to step into an 8A football program that as you said, we’ve had some good success at Sandalwood in the last several years, we’ve averaged probably six or seven D-I kids a season, and to be able to step into a program like that and basically from day one take a starting position on the defense and a leadership position. I’ve been coaching since 2000, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had a young man step in like that as a sophomore and do that.”

Soon after the season ended, a highlight film containing lightning quick-blitzes and thunderous hits that defied the laws of the physics began to circulate. On one such play, a Ribault Trojan took a jet sweep to the right, went upfield, but despite attempting to rotate his body left, received a devastating blow knocking him the other direction.

The recruiting momentum continued to mount for Jennings, who—after recording 136 tackles and six sacks in 10 games—was a key contributor to Geis electing to adjust spring practice from the after school-norm to 5 p.m.  “six, 10, 12” college coaches were there daily to view the spectacle, with the prized prospect becoming “make or break” for Power Five programs.

“I’d say that’s the chance they get to come out and talk to you,” Jennings said.  “You’ve got to see them from their perspective, get a good one-on-one talk, and then from that point, you’re going to have to keep in contact with them. And I mean, some people say it’s stressful and all of that, but I just try to make sure that I just maintain, just show the same amount of attention that you’re receiving and everything and just be thankful for the opportunity.”

A student of the game, it’s perhaps his attitude and mentality that set Jennings apart beyond even his physical abilities that only continue to improve. A film rat, he’s been known to call out things like “counter” before coaches even express it’s a counter team. His intense training regimen combines speed, agility, and endurance all in one, with running exercises differing each day, sometimes running miles, sometimes running wind sprints that gradually increase in distance.

When conditioning with the team, he’s a rare breed that not only leads the linebackers, but despite his size, still pushes the DBs to work harder and run faster.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing sometimes, man,” said the kid they call Godzilla. “I just go out there. I just work. I don’t question anything too much. I know everything is going into the right motion.”

Trusting in Pariseau and his father, he continuously rehearses his reads, practices hand-placement, and with foresight from the film room, has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

One such instance came in this past year’s primetime district contest against Mandarin televised on ESPNU. 

With 8:28 remaining in the first half and the Saints ahead 21-14, 2018 Mr. Football Carson Beck and the Mustangs took over at their own 4. After studying the opponent’s RPO offense, the linebacker noticed a pattern in how they lined up and motioned. Seeing it was a sweep to his right side, Jennings did what he does best, took a step, got downhill, and found a way to make a play, this time forcing a fumble.

After a red zone interception could have given Mandarin an emotional edge, Godzilla’s will and effort took over on the ensuing possession.  Blitzing up the middle as he often does, an offensive lineman tugged him to the ground as he was getting through the gap.  Not giving up on the play, he rose up and recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

“Football players, at the end of the day, make football plays,” Fines said.  “But I do remember the surge and the momentum swinging back when we had come back and taken the lead against Mandarin and Branden being a huge leader and propeller to get that momentum swing back in our favor because when he’s making plays on the field, obviously, he’s going to get the defense rallied around that, but he’s bringing that same energy and passion from the field straight to the sideline. So not only is the defense getting pumped up…but it’s bringing the team together and rallying not just the defense but the offense and kind of getting the whole team pumped up…”

With that being said, his performance during the Saints’ 3-5 record (125 tackles, eight sacks, FR, INT, eight games) in 2019 may say just as much as what took place in the 7-3 campaign the year prior.

Following a 3-0 hot start that included wins over playoff team-Terry Parker and historic rival Fletcher, depth and injures became an issue, particularly on the offensive line. In that 34-27 defeat versus Mandarin, three of their original starters from that unit were out, including Louisville early-enrollee Kobe Baynes.

Yet despite the adversity, what most stands out may be Jennings’ continued effort. Geis gave him potentially the highest compliment, that he “plays so hard every play,” and when things went downhill, his desire would not be denied. 

When he became the starter, he didn’t let up.

When the (41) offers began to pile up, he didn’t “big head” his teammates.

In terms of practice, he’s one of very few who bring the same intensity day- after-day that he does on Friday nights.

“A lot of kids, like I said, they’re starting, they’re complacent; they (other players) realized really quickly that Branden was not going to be complacent with just starting,” recalled Fines from Jennings’ sophomore year. “Even though we’re three, four weeks out from our first game, this kid is coming off the ball and blitzing like it’s a game right then and there and it’s for the playoffs.  And I want to say that first week, I think he took one of the offensive guards, just de-cleated him off their feet and silenced everybody on the field…”

By the sound of it, it doesn’t appear that moments like that will likely occur anymore.

“I’ve got to get down there in individual [period] because he’s too big, he’s too physical, and this year won’t be any different,” said Geis who is usually with the offense during practice. “Those old stories you used to hear about Dick Butkus not even allowed to hit people in practice, had to go hit a tree, that’s what he’s going to have to do.”

Yet, even if contact with his teammates is out of the question, his presence overall is invaluable.  According to Pariseau, his leadership has grown, and while Fines said he’s seen him be “brutally honest,” at the same time, Jennings will “pull them to the side and put his arm around them,” indicating it’s not out of spite but to push his teammates to be the best they can be.

At the same time, he holds himself accountable, even when it isn’t necessarily his fault, taking challenges to his unit personally. On Twitter, he has condemned the practice of posting highlights after a team loss; scrolling through his page, he hasn’t done so.

When it’s his turn to be coached, he listens.

“He doesn’t think he knows it all,” Pariseau said. “Obviously, he’s going to a much bigger school and place than I did, and God has given him some other abilities and some things that I just wasn’t blessed with, but he’s humble.  That’s what I mean like in the classroom even.

“He’s very coachable. He’s ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir.’  I’ve never seen an attitude with him. Anything I’ve asked him to do, he’s done it. And we dog him out pretty hard in individual, I’m not going to lie to you. Nobody wants to come with the linebackers. We’re definitely going to work their behinds and he’s right there.  He’s ‘Yes, sir.’ 

“If I call him and the team is bending over or anything: ‘Hey, let’s go get up,’ he’s like ‘Yes, sir.’ If we’ve got to take a lap for whatever reason, he’s getting the guys up and we’re going. He’s just a great young man, you know what I mean?  I wish I had 40 of him.”

One of the trademarks associated with the Saints’ program lies in their weight room, a mural of pictures containing the vast number of Division I players during Geis’ tenure.  A symbol of pride, the jerseys of Chris Jones and DeMarcus Walker—both now NFL players— are just part of the decorations in the facility.

A member of the Florida Times-Union’s recent all-decade team, Walker was the most recent Sandalwood player to don No. 44 for a ‘Noles national championship team.

It also happened to be the number worn by Bradley Sr. the time before.

Sitting in a chair next to his father on Feb. 7, that same Garnet and Gold—Nokia Sugar Bowl patch and all—was hiding underneath Godzilla’s black hoodie. In front of a full crowd at the school’s gym, Jennings got up, took off the sweatshirt, and did the traditional tomahawk chop, signaling his verbal commitment to his father’s alma-mater.

“Well, I’d just say talking to coach [Chris] Marve and to coach [Mike] Norvell,” said Jennings on what stuck with him from the Jan. 25 Junior Day.  “They gave me good influence on who they were as coaches and not just coaches but as people, and I got to see how they were…and I knew I would like the coaching staff.”

While Jennings’ experience both there and at spring practice made a believer out the prospect in terms of Norvell and company turning things around, a contingent of evaluators cite his tall body and long strides as a reason to doubt elite performance at the next level.

Pariseau compliments the player’s footwork and seems to put that aspect of his skillset in a positive light, rather than listing it as a weakness.  He also continually emphasized Jennings’ “nose for the ball,” said he has “never had anyone come through like him,” high praise considering the NFL players and wealth of talent he has witnessed, and above all, made a point to mention the “character and the quality of the young man.”

Geis likened the situation to that of another local legend, one who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, a national championship, and an NFL rushing title.

“Everybody says ‘Well, he’s going to have to move to d-end’….Well, yeah, they said that about Derrick Henry.  ‘Man, he couldn’t play running back.’”

“Like I said, you just don’t see those kids every day, man.  You just don’t do it.”

Follow Bryant Roche on Twitter @BRocheSports

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Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.