We have reached another day in our series at Maize n Brew where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will be successful in 2015. This is the eighth part of the series, in which Anthony and Drew discuss Jabrill Peppers' delayed "debut", whether the enormous hype is justified, and how he will perform on the field this season.
Drew: "The next Charles Woodson."
Many have said it. I have alluded to it. And we’re all clinically insane for it.
Or maybe not.
Since recruiting went mainstream in the early aughts, no incoming Wolverine has received more hype or buzz than Jabrill Peppers. One reason is that Michigan never had received a commitment from a recruit rated as highly as Peppers. He was ranked as the third-best prospect in the nation in the 2014 class. The previous highest was Ryan Mallett at No. 5 in the 2007 class. Another reason is that Peppers could provide an instant impact. He was not heralded solely because he had the tools to be special down the road. He has the tools to be special now. The quote to which I always refer is the one from an unnamed USC assistant when Peppers was in high school: he’s "only seen two players in high school with a body like that, and both of them are named Peterson (Adrian and Patrick)." Those two became alright college football players, and it’s difficult to restrain yourself from becoming overly excited when such comparisons are made about him.
So we just compare Peppers to a Heisman Trophy-winning defender instead.
Peppers has been on campus for over a year now, and, though he missed most of last season with a knee injury, the expectations have not changed. If anything, the hype has grown, which would have seemed like an impossible feat last summer. Yet here we are, where, by all accounts, with his aggressive attitude, innate confidence, and world-class athleticism, Peppers will be a key leader of Michigan’s defense as a redshirt freshman.
Anthony, is this hype for Peppers justified? Or have we just lost our collective minds?
Anthony: I think the hype is justified to an extent. People are crazy to expect him to be the next Charles Woodson, but to this day I have not seen a better high school football player on film. The reason I think Wolverine fans are still so excited to see him play has to do with the fact that he really has no sample size at all. Sometimes in a freshman year, we see enough from a player to think maybe he isn’t what his ranking suggested he would be. Shane Morris is an example of this. The hype has yet to be justified there and likely won’t be.
That does not necessarily apply to Peppers. He played less than a game last season and looked to be a key fixture in the secondary had he stayed healthy. Expectations should always be tempered when a prospect hits campus, but it was really encouraging to see him in the mix so early.
Now, he is healthy and ready to roll. His importance to this team cannot be understated. This is a second-year player who is already viewed as one of the leaders of the program. That does not happen by high school hype. He has done what he has to in terms of earning respect from his teammates and coaches. If he can stay on the field, which he should be able to, he will be one of the breakout players in all of college football.
Drew: Even though I’ve alluded to the comparison between Peppers and Woodson, it’s such an unfair comparison to make. How can we forecast that a redshirt freshman will satisfy such expectations? Woodson is only one of the greatest defensive backs to play the game of football. He’s won the Heisman Trophy, a national championship, an NFL Defensive MVP, and a Super Bowl, and he is a lock to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires. And you know how the saying goes: "Water covers 70 percent of the earth. Charles Woodson covers the rest." Placing that standard on Peppers is absurd. I think Peppers is destined to have a spectacular career at Michigan, barring further injuries, but not even a spectacular career can live up to a resume like Woodson’s.
However, it has been reported that, like Woodson did at Michigan, Peppers has taken reps with the offense in addition to his duties on defense. It makes sense that the staff would want to give him a shot both ways when Peppers was doing stuff like breaking 10 tackles on a single run in high school. How much will he be used on offense in 2015?
Anthony: He’ll definitely get some snaps back there. He’s too good of an athlete not to, especially with the lack of elite playmakers on that side of the football. Now, we aren’t looking at a scenario where he’s going to be passing, throwing, catching and running around the field like Tom Harmon, but I can definitely see a scenario where maybe he comes in during certain third-down scenarios as a pass catching option out of the backfield. If you are going to have him out there, the ball needs to be in his hands with a chance to make a play.
I could see maybe three-to-five snaps a game back there, but nothing too crazy. They do not want to wear him out, especially since it looks like he will be on the field nearly all the time on defense and be a factor in the return game, as well.
But yes, there is not a guy yet on offense that can bring what he does athletically. They should try to get him involved a few times a game, and I think they will based on rumors coming out of camp.
Drew: I think so, too. We discussed last week whether a running back would emerge for Michigan this season, and the humorous -- or not-so-humorous -- part is that Peppers may be the best one on the team. The problem is that he plays defense. I’m not sure if we'll see Peppers line up as the running back in an Ace or I-formation, but may we see him take snaps in the wildcat? This would not be a surprise. Like you said, Anthony, Michigan does not have a known, explosive playmaker on offense, and Peppers may be able to provide that offensive spark with his elite athleticism in small doses each game.
But Michigan should not rely on Peppers more than that. Not only would more snaps on offense tire him out given that he will be involved in nearly every play on defense and is the lead candidate to return kicks on special teams, that would be quite the burden to carry for a second-year player seeing his first extensive action. Peppers may be talented enough that he can handle that much responsibility, but I worry that stretching him that thin will lead to mental miscues. The Wolverines should shelve those special offensive packages for Peppers early in the season and allow him to become comfortable in his defensive role first. Then, Michigan can unleash those packages in special circumstances -- for instance, against Michigan State and Ohio State -- when defenses aren't prepared.
Nonetheless, Peppers' biggest impact will be on defense. On Monday, defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin explained that there still is an "ongoing discussion" about how to best use Peppers, whether it be at strong safety, nickel, or even corner. What do you expect from him on defense in 2015? How will his presence affect Michigan’s defense?
Anthony: I’m not ready to say that he’ll be a superstar this season, but I do believe he is going to be a key cog in the secondary and that he will do well wherever he lines up. Whether that be at safety, boundary corner or in the nickel, Peppers has the right attitude and physicality to succeed wherever this staff puts him. I think his value to the defense will actually be more in nickel and dime packages with him covering the guys in the slot, but he will be good at safety, too. His football instincts should allow him to sniff out plays and jump routes, as well as get into the backfield and blow up a play. Like I said earlier, he is already viewed as a vocal leader in that locker room and that cannot be understated. There are quite a few upperclassman leaders in key roles on defense, so it speaks volumes about Peppers as a player that he is seen as one of the top guys on defense by his teammates.
They will move him around a variety of places. His skill set allows for that. Realistically, he could probably play any position that does not involve a three-point stance. Coaches will use that to the best of their ability and I do expect him to justify the hype and succeed wherever. The hype suggests that, and I would be disappointed if he was unable to at least take a big step forward in year-two in Ann Arbor.
Drew: C'mon, Anthony. It's more fun when we disagree, but, once again, I can't. I have similar expectations for Peppers this season. He won't be a superstar. He will make mistakes and blow assignments, as he did at times during the spring game. The difference between Peppers and the average player, though, is that Peppers has the athleticism to mitigate those mistakes in a split-second. This is why that Peppers may be the most important defender even if he is not the best one. Michigan does not have another player on its roster with the athleticism and strength to defend the run and the pass in space over the slot, where he'll line up pre-snap whether he is the strong safety in a base package or the nickel in nickel and dime packages. Essentially, Peppers will be like an eighth defender in the box, playing near the line of scrimmage. Seth Fisher of MGoBlog explains this in greater detail in an excellent piece he penned back in June that you should read. If this strategy works, Michigan will defend the spread much better in 2015.
Peppers is one of the reasons why this Michigan defense can take the next step. His presence will shut down options for opposing offenses and make his teammates better, allowing them to cheat to a certain side of the formation because they know Peppers has the other side covered. These are the little things that Peppers will do -- things that may not be visible while watching the game in real time. This may not equate to all-star stats that the hype indicates that Peppers should be accumulating if he wants to be the next Woodson. That's fine. Michigan doesn't need the next Woodson -- though it wouldn't hurt. Michigan needs a weapon that can do it all in space over the slot. Peppers is it.
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will discuss just how much distance is between Michigan and its rivals entering this season, which rivalry game is more important in 2015, and whether the Wolverines will walk away the victors against the Buckeyes or the Spartans.
Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015
August 17th: The Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18th: Did Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?
August 19th: Jake Rudock vs. Shane Morris -- Who Wins?
August 20th: Will a No. 1 Receiver Emerge?
August 21st: The Running Back Rut
August 24th: Defense, Dominance, and Durability
August 25th: Pressure Problems