Herman Edwards on Jabrill Peppers: 'He is really fun to watch. He is going to have an excellent college career.' (Photo courtesy of Sam Webb)
Michigan’s recruiting class will once again be well represented in the annual jamboree of all-star exhibitions that begins Thursday with the seventh edition of Under Armour All American Game. Seven future Wolverines are listed on the roster, but only four of them will suit up when the teams take the field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Grand Rapids Christian wide receiver Drake Harris (hamstring), St. Clairsville (Ohio) linebacker Michael Ferns (shoulder), and Warren DeLaSalle linebacker Jared Wangler (shoulder) all chose to continue rehabbing from their injuries over risking possible setbacks. Even with their absences, though, there is a lot for Maize and Blue fans to watch (4 p.m., ESPN). Topping that list is the performance of Paramus (N.J.) Catholic star Jabrill Peppers.
The most heralded prospect in Michigan’s class didn’t disappoint those anxiously anticipating a stellar showing in practice this week. The five-star defensive back commanded attention thanks to both his physical dominance and his loquaciousness. It was a showing that confirmed his rating in the eyes of Scout.com National Recruiting Director Scott Kennedy.
“What I see is a guy that could play four to five different positions and excel at them,” Kennedy said. “He is a strong running back. He is as fluid as a good corner, he hits like a linebacker, he could play safety -- you could honestly take him and put him in an outside linebacker position and he would flourish. He is going to return kicks, he is going to return punts, and he catches anything that is near him. He is spectacular. He is a top-three player in this country regardless of position for a reason, and at 5-10 or 5-11, he is pretty special.
“I was talking with the fans around here earlier (about rankings). I said, ‘Listen, if you were to say (offensive tackle) Cameron Robinson was your No. 1 guy I would not argue with you. If you were to say (running back) Leonard Fournette was your No. 1 guy I would not argue with you. Jabrill Peppers No. 1? OK, he is good enough. I don’t argue levels of elite. The kid is elite.”
Former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards agrees. The current ESPN analyst is one of the Under Armour coaches this year and he has worked extensively with Peppers all week. He has seen his fair share of top-shelf talent and believes that the future Wolverine it cut from that type of cloth.
“(He is) a special young man, first of all,” said Edwards. “He has a great mindset of what it means to compete, always striving to get better. He has got some toughness to him that you can see right away. He has great qualities when you play the cornerback position. A mentally tough guy that has great transition speed. In other words he can get out of cuts and breaks. He is competitive and a team guy too. He has a lot of humility. He has fun practicing. He is a little bit of a talker, which I like. I played the position (so) I get it. He is really fun to watch. He is going to have an excellent college career.”
The comparisons to Charles Woodson continue to rain down for obvious reasons, but Edwards finds drawing such parallels unnecessary when trying to convey how good Peppers could be.
“I never compare players,” said Edwards. “I think you get in trouble when you do that. God has given this kid a lot of talent. The thing you see right away is that he won't waste it. He has a chance to be as good as he wants to be. He has a good work ethic. He enjoys football. He just needs to stay healthy. If he can do that he is going to have a great career.”
Edwards is certain Peppers will play right away at Michigan.
“This guy can really go,” Edwards said. “He is going to be a factor in (the Under Armour) game. We’re going to have him on defense, but he’s going to carry the ball on offense too. We’ve got a couple of plays for him.”
Some of those plays call for Peppers to be the quarterback in the wildcat, while others call for him to line up in the backfield next to his future Michigan teammate Wilton Speight. The 6-6, 225-pound quarterback has been impressive in his own right, as evidenced by his being named the starter for Team Nitro Wednesday. In the eyes of analysts like Kennedy and Scout.com’s Greg Biggins, Speight’s showing in Orlando proves the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” He may have a statuesque frame, but he hasn’t been a statue in the pocket.
“A lot of that has to do with confidence as far as, ‘Are you comfortable in the pocket and are you tough?’” said Kennedy. “Peyton Manning could not run a (6.0 second) downhill 40, but he is still one of the best guys with his footwork, sliding from one side to the other and extending the play. You do not have to be overly mobile to be a mobile quarterback. That is where I think Wilton can do it. He is not Denard Robinson by any stretch of the imagination, but he can move and he can extend the play. He can throw on the run. The most important thing with him is, everything I saw him do this spring he has gotten better at.”
Kennedy likes Speight’s poise while on the move.
“I have seen guys that can run 4.4s and 4.5s, but when they get flushed (their) heads (are) down and they will look at nothing but to run,” he said. “Wilton has his head up looking down the field. He is extending plays, but he is also looking to make a play with his arm. (Another kid might) see that chaos and just kind of panic and just run into your own linemen because you don’t know where you are going with the football or you just don’t have a clue what you are doing. I think Wilton is calm under pressure. That is just kind of his personality. He can extend the play.”
The game will officially spell the end of Speight’s high school career, as he is set to begin life at Michigan next week as a mid-year enrollee. The same is true for Salt Lake City Highland defensive tackle Bryan Mone. The 6-4, 330-pounder started the week rather quietly before delivering a few overpowering performances in later practices. He has been lauded for his motor but he himself mentioned the need shed weight.
The final Michigan commitment on the roster mentioned a similar goal.
Paramus (N.J.) Catholic’s Juwan Bushell-Beatty engulfs defenders when he gets his hands on them. But at 6-6 and at a weight that appears to be in excess of 330 pounds, speed rushers have given him problems at times. Still, he too has had impressive moments throughout the week, including a few wins against former Michigan target Da’Shawn Hand.
Rounding out the list of Michigan commitments in all-star action will be Southfield defensive end Lawrence Marshall and Clairton (Pa.) Jefferson linebacker Chase Winovich in the Offense-Defense All American Bowl in Orlando Friday, and Tarpon Springs (Fla.) East Lake offensive lineman Mason Cole in the U.S. Army All American Bowl on Saturday. All three future Wolverines are currently slated to be in the starting lineups.
The final player of interest for Maize and Blue fans is Southfield defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The 6-6, 290-pounder will compete in Saturday’s Army game, but reiterated this week that he is not ready to make a decision. With official visits still scheduled to Florida State (Jan. 17), LSU (Jan. 24) and Ohio State (Jan. 31) there is still much for him to evaluate.
“The SEC is pretty much the best conference in college sports, so that right there helped me when thinking about out-of-state schools,” McDowell told Scout.com. “Florida State is in the ACC and they are still a good school. They put a lot of defensive linemen in the league. Ohio State, I am saying them because I have only been there once.”
All-star game schedule
Under Armour All American Game: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.), Thursday, 4 p.m., ESPN (four Michigan commitments)
Offense-Defense All American Bowl: Citrus Bowl Stadium (Orlando, Fla.), Friday, 5 p.m. (two Michigan commitments)
Army All American Game: Alamodome (San Antonio, Texas), Saturday, 1 p.m., NBC (one Michigan commitment, one target)
Semper Fidelis All American Game: Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.), Sunday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1 (no Michigan commitments)
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 weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.