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A Closer Look at Peppers’ Heisman Campaign

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Jabrill Peppers already has similar stats to Charles Woodson's 1997 Heisman season, but he's farther behind than those numbers indicate in other areas.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Charles Woodson’s 1997 Heisman winning season transcended rarity. He was and is the only primarily defensive player to win the award. He brought exceptional physical and football talent to the stage and made gold records.

In the third quarter of the Nick Saban-coached Michigan State game, Woodson stole the ball from MSU’s Todd Schultz on third-and-nine from the Spartan’s 21 yard line. Schultz rolled to the right sideline, under pressure, throwing the ball away. Woodson leaped up to grab it with one hand and also — somehow — touched a foot down in bounds. It was an interception that could only happen in about three inches of space, eight feet off the ground, and Woodson entered that space and made the play. Divine.

Against Ohio State, Woodson was the reason for Michigan’s victory. He intercepted the Buckeyes in the end zone. He caught a 37 yard pass on post route over the middle that set up the Wolverines only offensive touchdown. He returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown so similar to Desmond Howard’s six years earlier that it looked more like an homage than a real play that actaully happened. He had planned to strike the pose, but teammates had him buried in celebration. Roses.

The Heisman Moment ™ is terribly cliche but the truth is the trophy rewards electric play. Huge stat piles are only part of the requirements. To win the Heisman, a player usually is the best piece of the best unit in college football. And, often unfairely, that unit frequently plays on a really good team. Regardless, Charles Woodson was the best player on the best defense in football in 1997

Woodson didn’t line up on offense much, but he was productive when he did. He averaged nearly 20 yards per reception, and 15 yards every time he touched the ball. Scaling those numbers to an offensive-only player, and you get a wideout with somewhere close to 2000 all purpose yards which are good enough to win the Heisman on their own.

At this point of the 2016 season, Jabrill Peppers has the same number of plays and touchdowns from scrimmage, but half the average yardage and little of the magic. The two point conversion return against the Spartans was nice. The punt return against Rutgers is good for the stat lines, but it can’t really count for much because, you know, Rutgers.

Peppers, at this point, seems more likely to go down like Ndamukong Suh in 2009 than go down in history as the second primarily defensive player to win the Heisman. Suh dominated his position and terrified opposing offenses/quaterbacks, and could have kicked extra points. But his lack of statistics that really get people excited doomed his bid and he finished fourth, behind Mark Ingram.

Peppers has good numbers. His production is solid. He's an defensive player. He’s matching up stat-wise with Woodson’s 97 season, and he’s only through eight games.

Yards from Scrimmage Plays Yards Avg TDs
Woodson 17 259 15.2 3
Peppers 17 134 7.9 3

Punt Returns Returns Yards Avg TDs
Woodson 36 301 8.4 1
Peppers 15 257 17.1 1

Defense Tackles Solo Tackles Ast. Tackles TFL Sacks
Woodson 44 27 17 5 1
Peppers 44 31 13 10 3

The biggest hurdle for Peppers at the moment is that he hasn't shown that he's the absolute best at any one thing. He may, by season's end, clearly be the best punt returner in the country, but he’s in a tight race right now with Alabama’s Eddie Jackson. Or he might end up the best linebacker. Or the most efficient scorer. But from the start in 1997, Charles Woodson was the Jourdan Lewis of an amazing defense. He shut down opposing wideouts, but was also used in nickel packages as a slot man where he was dangerous blitzing. He played less offensively than Peppers, but his numbers were huge and proved that his phyiscal gifts weren't limited to defense.

Woodson also took the ball away from opposing quarterbacks. Peppers has done that zero times this season. People like interceptions. Video replay likes interceptions. Stat sheets like interceptions. Etc. Etc. Etc. They are the interjections of defense. They interrupt drives. Interceptions are the tangible metaphor of a defense's intimidation and domination that literally takes the ball from the other team, midair, to call their own offense back to the field. It's like Wil E coyote running of a cliff and realizing halfway across the canyon that the ground is gone beneath his feet and he falls to his (presumable) death.

For a Michigan defense that has struggled in the past to create turnovers, and is only average this year, the criticism that Peppers doesn’t anchor the defense like Jourdan Lewis could hurt him. It might not be true, but Peppers unique ability to shed oncoming blockers and read formations isn’t exactly the sexy stuff that gets a player Heisman votes.

Going forward, Peppers needs to return more punts for touchdowns and elevate his offensive game, even if it’s just for the sake of stats.

Woodson outperformed Peppers on offensive production (15yds avg is enough to get Skip Bayless to call you ELITE), and that production made the difference in him winning the heisman and finishing third behind Peyton Manning and Randy Moss. Then Woodson made sure he played his best football in the biggest games of the year.

That isn't to say Peppers can’t win. He has the chance to have an unprecedented offense and defense and special teams dominating season. But he has to also make the Ohio State game a microsm of his season and work the game around and through himself. He has to become the LeBron James of college football.

What Woodson did, and Peppers is yet to achieve, is make plays in impossible spaces. He brought unequivocal football talent to space in the universe it hadn't previously existed. That’s Heisman.

This is what Peppers has going his way in the Heisman race. His dominance in three phases of the game is unheard of. The problem is that much of what he does isn't flashy.

Peppers can get there. The potential is obvious. It’s too bad The Game is played in Columbus this year, but a punt return touchdown there would still be a great tribute.