LUBBOCK -- Late in the fourth quarter at Jones AT&T Stadium on Oct. 5, Texas Tech lined up to defend a two-point attempt that could potentially swing the game.
Down 45-35, Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders lined up in an empty set with running back LD Brown split out wide. Sanders motioned Brown into the backfield, snapped the ball and ran a zone read. There was never much doubt, though. Sanders, the former Mr. Texas Football winner, was going to take it himself.
Sanders followed 310-pound lineman Teven Jenkins’ lead block through the field side towards the end zone, and seemed to have the burst to make it three yards into the black turf.
Out of nowhere, a red jersey exploded from the boundary, through Jenkins’ space, and got one arm around Sanders. Sanders, a strong 6-foot-2, 195-pound body, leaned forward and tried with his entire might to cross the one extra yard to cut the lead to one score. But Jordyn Brooks, a senior in the No. 1 jersey, pulled him backwards and swung him to the ground. Oklahoma State did not score again.
“I mean, that’s maybe checkmate,” Texas Tech coach Matt Wells said after the game. “That’s maybe the play of the game.”
Naturally, Brooks shrugged it off after leading Tech to its first big win of the Wells era.
“I was honestly just playing football,” Brooks said. “I was in position to make a tackle and I made it.”
Plays like these might be routine to Brooks, but the nation is starting to take notice. After posting 19 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and three sacks against Oklahoma State, Brooks earned Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week. In the next few weeks, Pro Football Focus and The Athletic both named him to All-America teams.
At the next level, scouts are rumbling. The linebacker who garnered just a single in-state offer from a Power Five school – and who entered 2019 as a borderline undrafted prospect – has become the talk of the NFL.
“He’s a guy we liked over the summer, but he’s risen on our board about as much as any player in the country,” said Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl and a longtime NFL scout. “I don’t know if anyone has made a bigger jump at linebacker this fall than Jordyn.”
Center of Attention
When defensive coordinator Keith Patterson arrived at Texas Tech in December, he didn’t watch much film. He wanted to give everyone a fresh chance to prove themselves, and for his staff to make a fresh evaluation.
Immediately, it became obvious that linebacker was going to be a key issue. The Red Raiders had just four upperclassman on the roster at the position when the staff arrived. It didn’t help that the top linebacker of 2018, Dakota Allen, graduated and entered the NFL Draft.
Linebacker play is critical in any defensive system, but especially in Patterson’s scheme. Utah State linebacker David Woodward led the Mountain West with 134 tackles a year ago under Patterson’s tutelage. The year before, Patterson helped Arizona State’s Christian Sam lead the Pac-12 with 127 tackles.
Patterson ran every linebacker on the roster through the MIKE, WILL and RAIDER backers that he runs in his base 3-3-5 system during camp. Quickly it became clear that Brooks – and his 259 career tackles – was a perfect fit for the position.
“I just saw the instinctiveness, toughness and God-given natural talent to avoid blocks and make plays in space,” Patterson said. “It seems common sense to me to put him in the middle where he can now make plays to the boundary, plays to the field. It was kind of a no-brainer to put him in the middle of the defense.”
Brooks didn’t play the position much a year ago. Next to Allen, Brooks manned the weakside, slotting between the inside receiver and tackle. Even when Allen went out, teammate Riko Jeffers handled MIKE responsibilities more frequently. He didn’t have much experience from his high school days to lean on either since his responsibilities were so varied.
“Ironically, when we were at Stratford, he didn’t play inside linebacker, he played sort of an outside linebacker, dropping into coverage some, blitzing some,” said Eliot Allen, who coached Brooks in high school. “He was probably a better inside linebacker, but we were just trying to put our best 11 on the field. He was athletic enough to do the outside stuff, so that’s what we had him do.”
Transforming for the Job
Allen isn’t kidding. Brooks is a seriously athletic linebacker who has thrived everywhere. He ran the 4x100 for Houston Stratford’s track team at nearly 230 pounds. Stratford must have had the biggest sprint team in the state; Brooks ran the second leg and Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd (6-0, 213 pounds) ran the anchor. To play the MIKE effectively in the new defense, the new training staff focused his efforts on replacing bulk with lean muscle mass.
To do that, Brooks traded in the “fun food” for healthier options. Wells brought in a dietician to help revamp Tech’s nutrition program. The toughest casualty for Brooks was when the dietician pulled out one of his favorite foods, cereal, and replaced it with bagels.
“That’s been a big loss for me, for sure,” Brooks said wistfully, though he acknowledges that the dietary restrictions have helped.
In addition to physical development, Brooks had to learn how to make calls for the defense. Former defensive coordinator David Gibbs had his linebackers make play calls, but there’s much more communication and responsibility in a Patterson defense.
“Even within each and every call, there’s checks,” Patterson said. “We’re a formation-defending package. There’s calls he’s got to get us out of. There’s calls, line movements, things that happen up front that he has to communicate, so therefore he has to have a great understanding of the gameplan and what we’re trying to do.”
It only took one game to realize that Brooks could be special this season. He posted 11 tackles, a TFL and two quarterback hurries against Montana State. Two weeks later, in his first matchup with a Power Five team against Arizona, Brooks added 13 tackles, three TFLs and a fumble recovery.
The position shift plays right into Brooks’ skillset. He already used his remarkable Football IQ to diagnose plays instantly. Now, instead of committing completely to the weakside with his positioning, Brooks has the ability to defend and make plays anywhere. His elite speed and agility makes him an ideal physical presence in this scheme, and his all-world production has matched it.
“I can go sideline-to-sideline instead of being limited to one side of the field,” Brooks said. “I think it’s a better scheme for me personally... I had my doubts about it at first, but Coach P kept explaining what could happen for me if I kept buying in.”
Brooks’ increased role and production has suddenly made him an intriguing option for NFL teams looking for linebacker help in the 2020 draft.
“You never want to turn on the tape and really have to look for a guy,” Nagy said. “The guys who really jump out and make you notice them are the easiest ones to really buy into and get excited about. That’s what Jordyn does when you put on Texas Tech tape.”
Nagy reviewed Brooks’ junior tape over the summer and thought he showed some potential. His senior film is so good, it’s changed everything.
The production early in the year has been bonkers. Brooks ranks No. 6 in the nation with 78 tackles and No. 3 with 13.5 TFL through seven games. No other Big 12 linebacker is within 15 tackles. His game against Oklahoma State, the best of his career to this point, helped take his stock to the next level.
“We reach out on our own and make calls on a weekly basis to try and get their feedback, but getting calls unsolicited from teams like we’re getting with Jordyn is when you know a guy is really hot in the league,” Nagy said.
Just last week, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Brooks as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the class of 2020, ahead of mainstays like Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and Miami’s Shaq Quarterman. Experts are confident that Brooks can play either middle or weakside in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme with his athleticism and coverage ability.
Nagy tries to stay away from player comparisons, especially since he hasn’t seen Brooks play live. But watching Brooks on film, the relentlessness of his game reminds Nagy of a linebacker he worked with, and one Wells would be very familiar with from his time at Utah State: five-time Pro Bowler Bobby Wagner.
“He’s instinctive, trusts his eyes, he sees it, triggers and goes,” Nagy said. “He plays 100 miles per hour, throws his body around, is reckless. He’s just a really good football player. He’s one of those guys that’s always around the ball and plays with the tempo and the range and the style that’s going to really fit in the NFL.”
Doing it for Tech
Back in Lubbock, Brooks is noticeably uncomfortable with the praise. He looks down as I list off his stats and accolades. Does he like getting recognition? That people are noticing his success?
“It’s okay,” Brooks said. “The goals I have for myself and my team are much greater...all I’m trying to do is help my team win as many games as I can and go out here as a winner. Everything else will fall into place afterwards.”
He means it, too. Brooks is doing everything he can to change the culture of the program at Texas Tech, especially on defense.
Brooks and Jeffers, one of his best friends on the team, have instituted mandatory film study for all the linebackers and defensive linemen. The whole group meets at their house twice a week to review tape as a family.
“It’s something we’ve been doing since fall camp,” Brooks said. “I think it’s been helpful.”
Out of duty, the introverted Brooks has become a vocal leader on the team. After an early-season loss to Oklahoma, Brooks was part of a contingent that called a players-only meeting after an embarrassing 55-16 loss to Oklahoma. In the games since, the Red Raiders picked up a win over Oklahoma State, took Baylor to double-overtime and made a late comeback against Iowa State during perhaps the toughest stretch of the year.
“Last year, it wasn’t much of Jordyn. This year, he’s been very vocal,” Jeffers said. “He’s inspired the team when we’ve had down time. He’s grown as a leader. Time changes everyone. I feel like he’s taken some great steps.”
Brooks reminds himself every day that he only have five more guaranteed football games left at Texas Tech. It’s something he doesn’t take for granted. And before the bright lights of the NFL take hold of him, he wants to leave his legacy in Lubbock, and his teammates know it.
“I love going against him,” offensive tackle Travis Bruffy said. “I have nothing but respect for him – how he’s approached the season, how he’s grown as a player and as a leader. I love having him on this team.
“He is at the forefront of every positive change that this program is experiencing.”
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