Doubting Jabrill Peppers’ place in NFL? Just watch
NFL teams want to know what to do with Jabrill Peppers. As a dazzling, do-everything college superstar, the Michigan safety/linebacker/running back/return man is a conundrum — grist for the pre-draft season of overthinking.
But the best advice for what to do with Peppers might be the simplest.
“Put on the Colorado film,” Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said.
And so you do.
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A minute and 48 seconds in, No. 5 in blue is covering No. 5 in white: Colorado tight end George Frazier, who starts out wide to the left but motions into the slot. Peppers tracks him, sliding left, with his football brain calculating the possibilities from 7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
“Tremendous football IQ,” Brown said of Peppers. “So savvy. He can learn concepts. He’ll be in the meeting room, and he’ll put his hand up: ‘Hey, coach, I’ve got two questions.’ And bang-bang, it translates to the field.”
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The ball is snapped, and Frazier heads right to take out Michigan middle linebacker Ben Gedeon, while Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay takes the pitch from the quarterback’s left side. Peppers sees it all in a blink. Lindsay is doomed. Before Lindsay can survey the field in front of him, Peppers is speeding toward him like a laser beam, squaring his shoulders and making the kind of thunderous form tackle that spins coaches into hyperbole.
“He’s going to play man-to-man on No. 5, and No. 5 is going to crack the Mike, and he’s going to not only get to the back, he’s going to smash him,” Brown said. “He’s the best open-field tackler I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Lindsay loses 2 yards on the play, which sets up second-and-12. Asked months later for his favorite play against Colorado, Peppers said this one — with a caveat.
“I gave up a touchdown on the next play,” he said. “So I guess that takes something away from that one.”
Yes, Colorado is frisky on this mid-September afternoon. The Buffs lead the Wolverines 21-7 before the first quarter is over. Peppers has to do more. Fortunately, he can.
“He’s everything,” Brown said. “He can do anything he wants. Basically, I took my brightest guy and gave him a bunch of things to do, and he did them all, and he was great at them.”
“See, to me, everything’s a competition,” Peppers said. “And if a team has a really good kick returner, you want to be out there to make sure they know you’re better than that kick returner is.”
His favorite thing to do on a football field?
“I like hitting,” he said. “But scoring a touchdown is a close second.”
His favorite NFL players of the past are Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, who are on the Mount Rushmore of safeties. His favorite current players are Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Jacksonville’s A.J. Bouye, whom he discovered while watching him play for the Texans last season. He had never heard of Bouye but was impressed by what he saw and followed him the rest of the season.
“Then I heard he was undrafted, and I just liked that chip he played with on a very good, aggressive defense,” Peppers said. “That tells you a lot about a guy, when you can see what’s driving him.”
That Peppers stamina? Hard work, he says.
“I just credit that to the conditioning, and that’s something my coaches have put in me,” he said. “It’s just always been a big emphasis for me — running, everything I need to do in terms of conditioning. I might have gotten winded a few times, but I never really got tired.”
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Watch him against Michigan State, a game he opened by running for a 3-yard touchdown as a Wildcat quarterback and ended by picking up a fumbled two-point attempt and running it back 88 yards. Early in the second quarter, on fourth-and-1 for the Spartans from the Wolverines’ 43. Peppers is playing weakside linebacker, 3 yards off the line and on the offense’s left side. The handoff is to Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes, No. 24, who is running to his right behind a fullback and a tight end. He needs 1 yard. Peppers tears through the gap between the center and left guard and around the fullback and brings Holmes down from behind with two hands around his waist.
“That play, he’s a box linebacker, runs through the A-gap on fourth-and-short for minus yards,” Brown said. “And everybody’s, ‘Aw, he’s not big enough to do that.’ He can do anything he wants to do.”
Watch the Iowa game. Three minutes in, on third-and-11 for Iowa from its own 49, Peppers begins the play 10 yards off the line, one of two high safeties. He walks up into the box before the snap. Eyes in the backfield as Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard takes a deep drop, then as soon as Beathard breaks to run left, Peppers mirrors him. Beathard is not getting the corner.
“On that play, he’s playing the back,” Brown said. “He feels the QB rolling out to his right and has to add on to get him. Add on. I can coach a true linebacker to do that, and it’s not getting done as efficiently as he does it.”
You watch Peppers, and you see speed. You see instincts. You see — lack of interceptions aside — an innate ability and desire to make the kind of plays that change games. College games, yes, and until you see someone succeed in the NFL, you have to wonder. The NFL is unforgiving, and the draft’s history is littered with college stars whose games didn’t translate. But Peppers is not one for worrying.
“It’s been a bit stressful, but who am I to complain when so many have done it before me?” he said of the pre-draft process. “Somebody takes a chance on me, I’m just going to give them everything I’ve got, and that’s all I can do.”
What kind of player will Jabrill Peppers be in the NFL?