Freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers signs the jersey of Gabby Hall, 7, during Michigan's Youth Day. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — Several weeks ago, Brady Hoke cautioned the media gathered at the annual Big Ten Media Days from going too far in their praise and expectations of Michigan freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
No one, Hoke said, should rush to “anoint” Peppers.
But Peppers, who has not been made available to media for interviews this fall, has distinguished himself through preseason camp and worked his way into the starting lineup as a nickel and at punt returner. Michigan is continuing preparations for Saturday’s opener against Appalachian State at Michigan Stadium.
Senior quarterback Devin Gardner this week said Peppers and junior receiver Devin Funchess are the top two athletes on the team.
“These two guys are pretty elite,” Gardner said.
Funchess, who turned heads as a freshman and earned representation on several postseason all-freshman teams, like his teammates, talked about the energy and enthusiasm Peppers has brought on a daily basis to practice.
“He has a lot of football instincts,” Funchess said. “It’s great for a young player to come in with that type of knowledge. He is amazing. He is a freak athlete, as well.”
Peppers, 18, won the 100- and 200-meter state championships in New Jersey and was a four-time NJSIAA Group 4 state champion in football.
Certainly, he is familiar with the big stage.
“When you run track on a national level, and see how he led Paramus Catholic as a football player, and watching him over the course of the last 20-something days of practice, field punts, be in those situations, the confidence that he has gives me confidence,” Hoke said.
He’s confident enough in Peppers’ ability to have him return punts. Dennis Norfleet is the main kick returner.
Michigan punter Will Hagerup offered his scouting report on the talented freshman based on practices. The punters, he said, have had a lot of fun punting to Peppers, working to kick it over his head or direct it away from him.
“But he’s gotten to everything I’ve punted to him, and I think he’s going to be a weapon this year,” Hagerup said. “He’s an explosive player.”
Former Michigan safety Marcus Ray, who played on the 1997 national championship team, is now an analyst on the Big Ten Network. Ray played in the Michigan secondary with his close friend, cornerback Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman Trophy that year. Woodson also played on offense and special teams.
Ray said Peppers is special.
“He is a much better football player than Charles Woodson was coming out of high school by leaps and bounds,” Ray said. “Charles was a free safety and a running back. He was a great athlete, but this kid can cover. He’s a true cornerback coming out of high school. He has hands, he’s fearless. He’s a smart football player, too. He can pick up the defense, and he looks like a Masters of the Universe action figure when he takes his shirt off.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, like Hoke, has said they won’t rush Peppers. Mattison said they haven’t pampered the freshman and has called him “just a guy” in the defense.
“Jabrill has come and bought in right away,” Mattison said. “He’s bought into playing the scheme, trying to do exactly what (defensive backs coaches) Roy (Manning) and Curt (Mallory) are telling him to do in the back end.
“He’s played tremendously fast, he’s played with great confidence. He’s a very confident young man. Every practice he comes out with great energy. Everything we’ve done at practice, he’s been what we thought he would be.”
Appalachian State at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ESPN2, WWJ 950
Records: Season opener
Series: Appalachian State leads, 1-0
Did you know? U-M is 5-1 all-time in August, including 1-0 under head coach Brady Hoke.