TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a loss.
Maybe not in terms of the win column, but Anfernee Jennings had just seen another one of the Alabama linebackers suffer yet another injury and the look on his face told it all.
He was sitting in front of his locker following Alabama’s 45-34 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29. The Crimson Tide had just advanced to the National Championship Game, yet he was not smiling.
Most of the injury attention that day had been on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa coming back from ankle surgery following the SEC Championship Game. However, then-senior Christian Miller went down with a pulled hamstring, the latest in a long line of physical setbacks for the Alabama linebacking corps.
“I talked to him on the sideline and he seemed to be doing fine,” Jennings said.
However, his eyes and body language said otherwise. They conveyed a sense of disbelief, being almost stunned.
That’s how the Crimson Tide feels today with the news that Dylan Moses, the one experienced veteran in the defensive interior, suffered a knee injury during Tuesday night’s practice. A frontrunner for the Butkus Award and likely first-round draft pick if he leaves Alabama early, his season is almost certainly already over.
Physically, Shane Lee will take his place, giving Alabama not only two true freshmen at the interior linebacker spots, but they’ll also be playing behind a true freshman at nose tackle, D.J. Dale.
There will obviously be some growing pains as the players all acclimate not only to the college game, but to each other. Meanwhile, those surrounding the new kids on the gridiron will have to help with relaying play call sand making pre-snap adjustments.
However, the emotional loss of Moses may be just as great as anything else. Just like the offense was supposed to be Tagovailoa’s, this was his defense — and it was shaping up to be a good one.
Moses was considered Alabama’s Alpha Dog, the highest form of praise to the Crimson Tide defense.
Yet Jennings has been the defense’s heart.
Now he might have to be both.
“He means a lot,” Moses said about Jennings earlier this week. “Everyone looks at me like I’m the leader, which I am, but I really look at him like he’s the head guy. His locker’s right next to mine. We conversate all the team just about what things we’ve seen after practice, like what things we need to work on. He influences me just like I influence him. We feed off each other.”
Jennings was one of the players to represent Alabama at SEC media days as a redshirt sophomore last year, which is pretty usual given that he was coming a significant injury and Nick Saban wants established veteran team leaders to be out front in that kind of spotlight.
But that’s where Jennings has been.
Having arrived in the signing Class of 2015, he redshirted the first season and then worked hard to earn a spot in the linebacker rotation. Jennings went from playing significant minutes to earning a starting job and had 41 tackles, including six for a loss and one sacks, and forced a pair of fumbles and broke up two passes while registering four quarterback hurries.
He blew out a knee against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, an injury that could have potentially cost him his leg due the severity. Regardless, he fought his way back and was ready for Week 1 of the 2018 season.
Jennings tallied 51 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, while having more pass breakups than any defensive back (11). There were also two fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown, and his first career interception.
“Man, he’s a dog,” Terrell Lewis said in a good way. “He’s kind of proven himself around here. Anfernee, a lot of times even when I was younger I would look at him as one of those physical guys just like I would look at Ryan Anderson —and look at him and try to learn from his game and put it into mine as far as like setting the edge, being physical and just having that dog mentality.”
Jennings obviously has a lot of experience in dealing with injury issues as well, and the Crimson Tide will need it. Alabama hasn’t even played a game yet, and the situation is showing shades of 2017.
Outside linebackers Miller (bicpes) and Lewis (elbow) both went down in the season opener against Florida State and missed 10 games. Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans also suffered a painful groin tear and was hindered until midseason.
Coming off an ACL tear in the 2016 SEC Championship Game, inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton had a fractured kneecap against LSU. Mack Wilson suffered a cracked foot during that same game. As he returned, Moses fractured his foot during bowl practices, and Jennings torn his ACL in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Last year the injury bug struck again with the position group as Lewis tore his ACL during the summer, and outside linebacker Chris Allen did likewise during fall camp. Both missed the entire season.
"Man, you don't even know,” Jennings said about getting them back this season. “I'm beyond excited. With those guys, they're two different types of players — well, we're all different types of players — and we just capitalize off each other. It's gonna be fun.”
Moses was optimistic as well, even after McMillon suffered his injury. he called lining up next to Harris, who went to his same high school in Baton Rouge, La. (the same hometown as Allen): “like a Louisiana all-star team, I guess you could say."
Of course, the 2017 team went on to win the national title, but it also had more depth.
This group will be more of a work in progress beginning with Duke on Saturday, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s the same place where the Crimson Tide had so many injuries against the Seminoles.
At least they have someone who’s been there before, in more ways than one.