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Jalen Brooks passed up Ivy League for shot with Terps

Maryland linebacker Jalen Brooks plays against Penn State during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium.
Maryland linebacker Jalen Brooks plays against Penn State during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

In almost every college football player's biography, there's a section that lists the other schools he considered before making his final choice.

Usually, those schools are relative to the type of recruit he was. A touted five-star player will have a list of some of the nation's bluebloods. Another might have schools in his region or in the same conference.

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For Maryland outside linebacker Jalen Brooks, however, that list is a little different. In his bio, his "also considered" is three of the top academic schools in the nation: Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

While at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia, Brooks had the opportunity to get an Ivy League education at any number of prestigious institutions in the Northeast while also playing football. But Brooks decided that he wanted to have the opportunity to play big-time college football in the Big Ten Conference at Maryland while also attending one of the nation's top business schools. So he pledged to the Terps.

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Just past the midway mark of his redshirt sophomore season, Brooks has continued to develop for Maryland. He's started all seven games this season and ranks fifth on the team with 39 tackles. He also has an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defended. And he provides a different dimension to the Maryland defense with his combination of smarts and athletic skill.

"When you got a guy that can really take it to the classroom and take it to the football field, you've got a guy that you can not only do a lot with," Brooks' high school coach Bob Sphire. "He's going to make everybody around him better and he's going to get guys lined up, he's going to get guys in the right place."

Playing football in Sphire's program, one of the best in Georgia, Brooks wasn't an anomaly. Sphire estimates that he's had 10 or 12 players from his program play at Ivy League schools, including Harvard quarterback Scott Hosch and Yale offensive lineman Jeho Chang. North Gwinnett's academic standing also put Brooks in an environment where he was in a student population Sphire called "very goal-oriented, very college-oriented."

And that carried over to the football field, where North Gwinnett went 11-2 and made it to the third round of the Georgia 6A playoffs during Brooks' senior season.

"The playbook can be a little bigger," Sphire said. "The ability to tweak things even in the course of competitionwhen you have kids like that in your program gives you a little bit of an advantage to expand the playbook or to wrinkle things with a little tweak here or a little tweak there, where in other settings you may lose the kids."

And so that put Brooks with an interesting dilemma when it came to making his college decision. He had the opportunity to play for a Power Five program, but he also was searching for an institution where he could come away with a degree that would help him long after his football career ended.

When he visited Maryland, Brooks felt like he was back home in Suwanee. The student population was diverse. The campus was large. College Park was outside of a major city in Washington, D.C., while Suwanee is outside Atlanta.

Then there was the school itself, which Brooks called a "no-brainer." Brooks said he considers Maryland to be a "public Ivy," and he was taken by the reputation of the business school. He's a finance major and was recently accepted into a dual program where he can take graduate classes at the same time as his undergraduate classes. He's not sure what exactly his future career holds, but he has a few ideas.

"[I want to] just to be in a position where I can help younger people understand their finances a little better before they get out in the real world," Brooks said.

Brooks' smarts aren't lost on his teammates. Inside linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said Brooks asks "a lot of questions" in the linebackers meeting room and he wants to know every little thing and be completely sure about how things work. Brooks has spent time at both the weakside and strongside linebacker spots this season.

"It just shows how serious he is about life now and about football," inside linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said. "It's things like life after football. He's a smart guy on and off the field and it shows."

After redshirting his true freshman season in 2013, Brooks appeared in 12 games last season and started four times. In Maryland's 20-19 win over Penn State on Nov. 1, he had a then-career-high seven tackles. He was set to battle with Connecticut transfer Jefferson Ashiru for the starting job at weakside outside linebacker, but after junior Abner Logan suffered a season-ending injury, the linebacking corps shuffled.

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Brooks has been productive, recording a career-high 10 tackles against West Virginia and nine tackles against both Bowling Green and Ohio State. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Brooks, who is a former high school wrestler, is athletic enough to play in Maryland's nickel packages.

"He was a little bit of a late-bloomer from the standpoint of you could kind of see it with the feet, the hands," Sphire said. "But it was really late in his junior year going into his senior year before he really got man-strength and started to blossom into a more physical football player."

For the rest of the season, Brooks hopes to remain productive for a defense that's made strides after a few dismal performances early on. He's trying to make an impact, and he knows that he can not only affect a game with his skill but also with his intelligence.

"If he's having success," Sphire said, "he deserves it."

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