Jabrill Peppers: "(Greg Mattison) compared me to (Woodson) a lot actually, but my goal is that I want to be better than Charles Woodson." (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports Next)
The month of April proved to be a very memorable one on the recruiting front for the Michigan football program. The Wolverines landed five verbal commitments, including one from Fox Sports Next's No. 26 prospect, Grand Rapids Christian wide receiver Drake Harris. But that may just be the calm before the storm. The Maize and Blue is currently among the favorites to land five-star Paramus (N.J.) Catholic defensive back Jabrill Peppers next month.
Ranked the No. 4 cornerback in the country and No. 11 player overall, Peppers has been regarded by pundits as one of the country's top prospects regardless of class for well over a year. By the end of what should be a dominant senior campaign, he could be rated even higher.
"He is an ultra-powerful kid and he is just a natural leader for us, as well," said Paramus Catholic head coach Chris Partridge. "He came in last year (as a transfer from Ramsey, N.J., Don Bosco Prep) and we moved his position from corner to safety. And on offense we put him at fly because we wanted to be able to move him around and throw him the ball, run him a little bit, and do some different things. He had an unbelievable year, defensively and offensively."
Game after game Partridge witnessed Peppers' game-changing exploits, and each time came away more awestruck. The same could be said for most others that caught the talented youngster in action. The only one not overwhelmingly impressed with the performances was Peppers himself.
"I feel as though I could have had a better year," he said. "We took two losses and I definitely felt that I could have done a lot better in those games. This year was alright — definitely not one of my best years. Look out for my senior year. I'm going out with a bang. We're coming for the national championship, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that me and my team get the job done."
That commentary shouldn't be confused with contrived modesty. It's a true reflection of Peppers' belief that he is capable of taking his game to another level. It also proves why complacency will likely never be an issue.
"The things I think I do well — I think I am a pretty excellent tackler," said Peppers, describing his game. "I never quit. You're going to get a guy who is going to keep coming, keep coming, and keep coming until that final whistle sounds and the ref holds that ball up. I think I'm a guy who makes the guys around him better. I'm a leader on the field. You can see in some of my games me communicating all throughout the game. The things I think I can improve on — definitely my patience, definitely my backpedal, (and) my off-man coverage. Just let the game come to me a little bit more. When you are expected to perform so great and on a higher level, you kind of want to rush things and not let the game come to you. That's what I plan to do."
Stanford up next
He initially employed a similar approach to his recruitment, but a prolonged timetable for reaching a decision now appears less practical. He has already visited three of his top four schools — Michigan, Ohio State and LSU — and the constant recruiting distractions have taken their toll. That's why he has opted to fast-track his final visit to onetime favorite Stanford.
"(Recruiting) is definitely is getting outrageous now," Peppers explained. "I didn't really think it would get like this. I wanted to wait until after my (senior) year, but I feel good about the decision that I'm going to make. When I make it it'll take a huge weight off my shoulders so I can focus on school my senior year, and more importantly, this upcoming football season. Everything is getting pretty hectic right now, so I'm just trying to move that visit up (from July to June) and make the decision in June. After the Stanford visit I feel as though I will know. I (already) have a pretty good feel on the other schools that I have on the board."
That is especially true of Michigan in the aftermath of his visit to Ann Arbor early last month. Peppers' boyhood affinity for the Wolverines had established them as a presence on his list, but it was his time on campus that moved them to their current enviable perch.
"Everything (on the visit) caught me by surprise," admitted Peppers. "It is no secret that I grew up a Michigan fan. Obviously I had high hopes for the visit, but they clearly exceeded those. I was just like, 'Wow.' I don't want to give too much away (laughter), but it was a good visit."
It wasn't a red-carpet treatment that allowed Brady Hoke and Co. to set the visit standard by which others are now being measured. Turns out, it was exact opposite.
"Real recognize real," Peppers said matter-of-factly. "That's the shortest and sweetest way you can say it. Real recognize real. They didn't put on a show. Basically who they are — they remind me of my coaches right now. That's how comfortable we felt there. It was like we were still at (Paramus Catholic). That was the main thing, just the comfort level and just how down-to-earth those guys are. How they are with their players — they coach you hard, and just everything. It was a great visit."
Added Partridge: "I really, really loved it too. You go some places and they try to put on a show, but at Michigan they genuinely care and love Michigan football. They showed who they are and why they love it. They were so enthusiastic when they were taking the kids around and talking to them. It is about life just as much as about football. There is no selfishness there. It is all about the kids and about Michigan football. I got a very good vibe with those guys."
Partridge's other star pupil — 6-7, 330-pound offensive tackle Juwan Bushell-Beatty — clearly got a good vibe also. That much was evident when the three-star lineman committed to Michigan last Monday. Soon after that he began putting in a good word for his future team with Peppers.
"Me and 'Big Sexy' talk all the time," said Peppers regarding his teammate. "It was different for him because he is a left tackle and they have a lot of tackles (recruits) out there. He thought it was the right spot for him. We will just have to wait and see how this thing goes (for me)."
By looks of it, Bushell-Beatty already has a few allies in trying to ensure it goes Michigan's way.
Said Peppers, "You got (Michigan commitments) Drake Harris, Wilton Speight, Maurice Ways, (Michael) Ferns. They all hit me and doing their share (of recruiting)."
How effective they are could be impacted greatly by the upcoming Stanford trip. The Cardinal have the advantage of being last up to the plate, thus giving them the chance to tailor their approach accordingly. And like Michigan, they possess many of the attributes that Peppers insists will determine his collegiate destination
"Definitely the academics, the ball play, the way the people are, how the coaches are, how the coaches are with the players, and how the players are with the coaches," he said describing his decision criteria. "National exposure because I want to play on television. A coach that is going to coach me hard. Climate and distance are not factors because I have dreams of playing in the league, and the league is all over. You have New England, which is freezing. You go down to Miami, which is hot. I'm not going to worry about weather or distance."
Another factor could be whether he'll have the opportunity to moonlight on offense and/or see action as a return man.
"I definitely want the ball in my hands," Peppers said. "My goal is to win the Heisman as a true freshman. People laugh when I say that, but that's my goal. It is not a dream because a goal is something that you can actually achieve. That's my goal — to win the Heisman as a freshman. I definitely want the ball in my hands, punt return, kick return, even if they allow me to play some offense, I'm all for it."
For Michigan's part, that sounds very similar to the way former Heisman winner Charles Woodson was utilized. That's a point Wolverine defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was sure to make.
"He compared me to (Woodson) a lot actually, but my goal is that I want to be better than Charles Woodson," Peppers said confidently. "I love the way Coach Greg Mattison uses his corners and his scheme. It absolutely fits into my style of play — aggressive (and) fearless. He wants his corners to be fearless. If he wants you to go lockup on an island, you had better lockup on that island. If he wants you to come off the edge, you better come off the edge ready to bring some pain."
He added: "The players (at Michigan) were as cool as could be. I don't even really know how to explain it. It is just a feeling you get."
Now the wait is on to see if he'll still have that feeling when he returns home from Stanford.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every Thursday at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.