Michigan expects Peppers to stand out all over field

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There is really no way to categorize Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers.

He’s listed in the just-released roster as a linebacker/defensive back, having been molded into a hybrid role by new defensive coordinator Don Brown, but he also returns kicks, and the second half of last season began contributing on offense.

So what exactly is he?

“I just say athlete,” Peppers said matter of factly Sunday at media day. “I don’t really get into specifics.”

It is difficult to confine Peppers in one role, obviously. But this is his norm.

“I’ve been doing that since Pop Warner,” Peppers said. “I don’t know why people make a big deal out of that. I’m just playing football. I guess it’s because it’s at this level. It’s not as hard as you guys make it seem to be. Just get my plays in and try to execute.

“I guess (the coaches) see the capability. I just look at it as I’ve been doing this since Pop Warner and high school, and they trust me to do it now. I just thought it would behoove me to play the best that I can play for my team and myself. That’s how I look at it. I don’t look at it like, ‘He can do this, he can do that.’ I’m just playing football. Everything is football for me.”

In the Minnesota game last season, Peppers was in on 90-plus plays. He said the number of plays doesn’t matter to him, but understands the concerns for his health. Peppers said being in on that many plays can be more mentally taxing than physically.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Sunday said he would like to keep Peppers in the range of 90-95 plays a game with “100 being really high per game.”

“Somewhere in that sweet spot depending on the mental capability of the athlete,” Harbaugh said. “In terms of load, 95-100 is probably the maximum we’re looking at right now.”

While in Chicago for Big Ten media days, Harbaugh spoke at length about Peppers and just how good he is at every position he might play.

“He’s a guy who could be a corner and cover with the best guys in the country,” Harbaugh said. “I’d say not as good as (Michigan All-America corner) Jourdan Lewis — I haven’t seen too many better than Jourdan Lewis. But to go to the safety position and cover from the safety position, he could do that. The nickel position, I believe, will be his best position as a pro player because he’s such a good tackler and he’s tough and he can cover anybody.

Harbaugh, Peppers like idea of Lewis as triple threat

“I’m excited in Don Brown’s system that he’s gonna play a hybrid linebacker that can rush the passer and I’ve already seen how effective he is at that. As a kick returner he’s at the highest level, as a punt returner he’s at the highest level.

“If we put him on our offense, I think he would be our best slot receiver. If we put him at running back, he’d give all our running backs a run for their money to be the best running back. He’s our best wildcat quarterback. I think he would be not quite as good as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh as an outside receiver. He might be our best guy to run a reverse. He can run a fly sweep.

“I’ve always thought of NFL players as the greatest athletes in the world. I truly believe that having watched them from very close up, and I truly believe Jabrill Peppers is in that opportunity to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. Combined with the passion he has for the game, the passion to be great, the seriousness to get better and ultimately the competitiveness he has, he has a fire. He’s motivated.”

Harbaugh has said on multiple occasions that Peppers picks up on plays almost instantly. They show him what they want him to run, and he can immediately follow through.

It all seems so easy and uncomplicated for Peppers.

“Nah, I don’t have to keep it simple,” Harbaugh said in Chicago. “He proved it last year. I’ve seen very few athletes with the ability to just show it to him on a white board, maybe show him a clip what you want him to do and then for him to go right out to the practice field and do it better than anyone else on the team or better than you thought he could do it. He’s one of those rare guys.

“(Stanford quarterback) Andrew Luck was that kind of athlete and had that kind of mind. You just had to tell him and he could do it. You told him sometimes midway through practice with Andrew, and he would do it right and he would do it perfect. We would tell Jabrill sometimes midway through practice, ‘We didn’t cover this in the meeting, but here’s what we want you to do, here’s what we’re calling the play. Run over after five plays on defense and we’re going to line you up at tailback,’ and he lines up without a walk-through rep or without a study in a meeting and can execute it better than you thought.

“Really those two guys are the only two I can think of that are like that, that have that kind of sharpness of mind and athletic ability. It takes real supreme athletic ability to have someone to tell you to do something and you to just do it. That’s at a different level. That’s off the charts.”

Lewis, who likely will play three ways this fall, according to Harbaugh, said Peppers will sit in every single room during a game week preparing for whatever the coaches ask.

“He’s very adaptive,” Lewis said. “He’s like a chameleon out there. He understands what he needs to do and where he needs to be every single time. He barely has missed assignments. That’s wild (considering) all the positions he plays. He can do everything. He’s one of those special players you don’t find too often.”

UM’s Chesson, Johnson healthy, ready to practice

Charles Woodson, who became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997, said last week while in Detroit for the Michigan uniform unveiling, that he keeps tabs on Peppers. Woodson frequently texts Peppers, especially if he sees something in a game he think could help.

“He just keeps me grounded,” Peppers said. “He’s one of the best to do it, so he gives me advice, things that just keep me up. I texted him a lot during spring ball when I was going through the transition of playing so many different positions and he was there to help me out.”

Peppers has two remaining years of eligibility, but he certainly could decide to leave after this season. That’s not something he currently considers worthy of discussion.

“I’m a college athlete right now,” he said. “That’s what my main focus is, with the University of Michigan. I’m not thinking about anything I can’t control. I learned that lesson my freshman year when I got hurt trying to look too far into the future. I’m just focused on right now, right now. That’s just going out and having the best season I can possibly have.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

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