By James Ogletree

Special to The Tuscaloosa News

ATLANTA — It happened on a routine second-and-10 run, within the final three minutes of an 18-point game. Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings jumped to avoid the scrum surrounding a Clemson ballcarrier, but as he did, his left knee collided with the leg of hard-charging teammate Ronnie Harrison. The knee buckled as Jennings fell to the ground, rolling over and lying on his side. His sophomore season had ended in garbage time of arguably the best game of his career: last season’s Sugar Bowl, the national semifinal.

Now fully recovered from the sprain, he spoke last Wednesday at SEC Media Days. The event took place a half-mile away from the site of the national championship game that he watched from a wheelchair, but he said that triggered no bitter or wistful memories.

“It’s not really frustration, but joy,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and it happened and we came out on top.”

As the crimson and white confetti fell on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, linebacker Jamey Mosley wheeled Jennings around to celebrate with his teammates, especially fellow linebacker Terrell Lewis.

“Jamey and Terrell are some of my close friends on the team,” Jennings said. “They both just embraced that we won and they both wanted me to be a part of the celebration, so they came and got me.”

Entering this season, Jennings is expected to share snaps at outside linebacker with Lewis and Christian Miller. After Lewis’ torn ACL and subsequent surgery last week, Jennings’ onfield performance and willingness to mentor inexperienced linebackers have become more crucial.

He was recently named to the watchlist for the Lott IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, Tenacity) Trophy, which is presented annually to a college football defender who excels on the field and demonstrates those character attributes. Past winners include NFL All-Pros J.J. Watt and Luke Kuechly and former Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans.

“It means a lot for them to see that in me and think highly of me,” Jennings said. “I just know that my focus right now is being a leader and focusing on this season.”

Offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said having Jennings back with the team brings an extra layer of toughness. Even if it sometimes rubs him the wrong way, he knows Jennings, whom coach Nick Saban called an “outstanding outside linebacker,” makes the team better in the long term.

“Anfernee’s kind of got that bulldog mentality on defense that I like to see,” Pierschbacher said. “He’ll be on the field talking trash and everything. At the moment I don’t like it, but then I’m thinking we need that kind of bully on the field, so I think Anfernee brings that.”