Last year was supposed to be the first stage of Jabrill Peppers' ascendance to stardom.
When Peppers enrolled at Michigan in June 2014, the hype machine was in full force. Heck, it had been in full force since the moment he freestyled his verbal commitment to Michigan on live television in May 2013. Not only was Peppers considered the third-best prospect of the 2014 class, he was and still is the highest ranked recruit that Michigan has landed since online services began tracking high-school recruiting in 2002.
And Peppers gave no one reason to temper the rising expectations in the year between his commitment to Michigan and arrival in Ann Arbor. He kicked off his senior season by breaking at least 10 tackles on this dazzling touchdown run in a scrimmage -- a highlight that topped SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays. He continued to wow audiences with spectacular play after spectacular play en route to his fourth NJSIAA Group 4 state championship in four seasons, for which he was named the 2013 All-USA Defensive Player of the Year by USA TODAY. He participated in the 2014 Under Armour All-America Game, where he was selected as a team captain. And then, to further prove his athletic superiority, he smoked the field, including five-star prospect and Alabama signee Minkah Fitzpatrick, by nearly a half-second in the New Jersey Non-Public A 100-meter track final, registering a time of 10.52 seconds. Peppers was such a physical specimen that 247Sports national college football and recruiting analyst JC Shurburtt called him a "one of the most dynamic football players I have seen at the high school level" and claimed that "[t]here probably hasn't been a high school player I've seen with that type of versatility and skill set since Joe McKnight in the 2007 class."
Michigan fans were salivating.
So, when Peppers arrived at Michigan for summer workouts and fall camp last season, he was the center of a media storm even though access to him was restricted. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were asked at almost every press conference, if not all of them, to affirm Peppers' hype and reveal where he would be utilized on the field -- whether that would be at cornerback, at nickelback, at strong safety, as a special-teams returner, or even on offense. Hoke indicated that Peppers would be worked in at nickelback and on special teams and his role would expand once he became more comfortable with Michigan's schemes. But it didn't stop Michigan fans from dreaming of the possibilities.
However, Michigan fans were jolted from those dreams when, in the opener against Appalachian State, a Mountaineer delivered a nasty cut block and rammed his helmet into the leg of an unsuspecting Peppers. The blow injured either Peppers' knee or ankle -- it wasn't specified. He tried to tough it out against Miami (OH) and Utah, but he just wasn't the same. So Hoke and the staff shut Peppers down for the rest of the season.
This wasn't what was supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was that Peppers would make an immediate impact and become one of the key contributors on Michigan's defense. We were supposed to see the first signs that Peppers was the real deal and he would become a future college football star. Instead, what we saw was Peppers limp around on the sideline. The hype that had built up for the last year fizzled.
But now the hype has returned, and it's bigger than ever. Peppers has recovered and been a full participant in the first half of Michigan's spring practices under new coach Jim Harbaugh. And the practice reports that have leaked out have been raving about Peppers. Raving. Even though Peppers is only a redshirt freshman and in his second year with the program, he has become one of the main leaders of the defense, if not the leader. Multiple reports from various outlets have stated that Peppers is "the alpha male of the defense" and "very vocal" in a positive manner -- though he does love to talk trash because of his competitive nature. He "always goes hard, even in drills," whether he's owning receivers in the Oklahoma drill, sticking the shifty Dennis Norfleet in an open-field drill that resulted in "a shot that could be heard across the field," making numerous diving interceptions, and beating his teammates in sprints on a regular basis. Some have called him "very special." Others have even gone as far as calling him "the MVP of the defense already." Regardless of the label, it is clear: the Peppers hype is back.
The question is what a healthy Peppers at strong safety means for Michigan's defensive backfield, which I previewed yesterday. The answer: he should transform what was a mediocre group last season into one of the Big Ten's best this season. Michigan is all but set at the other three positions in the secondary: Jourdan Lewis emerged as a potential All-Big Ten first-team corner last season, Blake Countess is a former All-Big Ten first-team corner, and Jarrod Wilson is a boring but reliable free safety that keeps plays in front of him. Though there is a concern about whether Countess can rebound from a disastrous junior campaign, the biggest hole in the secondary had been at strong safety with Peppers sidelined. Michigan tried three Wolverines there in Jeremy Clark, Delano Hill, and Dymonte Thomas last season, but none of them experienced much success. All three appeared confused too often, particularly when asked to drop back into coverage, and did not demonstrate the ability to make the critical one-on-one plays in space.
That won't be a problem for Peppers. He has the five-star athleticism and motor that will make him a weapon in the middle of the field, whether he's sticking to slot receivers in coverage or creeping down to the line and blitzing. And, not only will Peppers thrive at strong safety, his presence will benefit the other defensive backs. As Brian Cook of MGoBlog noted, aligning Peppers to the field side of the play will mean that Wilson has less space to worry about and allow Wilson to be more of a center fielder -- a role with which he is much more comfortable. Though Peppers still is learning and will be burned at times due to mental errors, no longer should offenses be able to shred the middle of Michigan's defense through the air without much resistance like last season.
With the return of Peppers' health and hype, Michigan's secondary will be a strength.
And we'll see what we should have seen last season: the making of a college football star.