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UM players can't shake questions about Peppers

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5) runs drills during practice, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, in Miami. Sixth-ranked Michigan is preparing to face 10th-ranked Florida State in the Orange Bowl Friday.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.  — Jabrill Peppers has not attended many interview opportunities during the regular season and hasn’t spoken to media during the Orange Bowl week.

So without Peppers around to talk about Peppers, who better to do that than his Michigan teammates, who have repeatedly been asked all season to discuss his on-field attributes and exploits.

The versatile Peppers, who plays offense, returns kicks and primarily plays on defense in a hybrid-linebacker role, was a Heisman Trophy finalist, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player as voted by his teammates.

Michigan’s players laughed on Wednesday during an Orange Bowl session when asked how many times they’ve been asked about Peppers this season.

“However many times I’ve been interviewed times 10, and then come out with that math,” senior nose tackle Ryan Glasgow said, smiling. “What can you do? He’s the lightning rod of our team, he’s the public figure.”

Defensive lineman Chris Wormley, a co-captain, said he wasn’t asked at all about Peppers on Wednesday, which was a rare occurrence. He estimated he’s been asked “150 times” this season about him.

“He deserves it,” Wormley said. “It’s Jabrill Peppers. He’s one of the Heisman candidates, he’s the best player on our team, the MVP, people are gonna ask about him, especially when he’s not the one being asked questions. People are gonna want to know things about Jabrill, so it’s OK.”

To the Wolverines’ credit, they have never shied away from talking about Peppers even when they may have hoped to answer more questions about their game or careers. They’ve never rolled their eyes or appeared exasperated by yet another Jabrill question.

“It says something about us but speaks more to how Jabrill is,” Glasgow said. “As a guy with that type of name, a public figure, you could be pretty cocky and you could think you’re above people He’s really down to earth, he’s a good guy, so I think it says more about him.”

Peppers catches the attention of opposing coaches because of his versatility in terms of playing offense and defense, but it is how many ways he can be used that proves most confounding.

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Michigan will face Florida State in the Orange Bowl Friday night, and the Seminoles are more than aware of Peppers.

“His versatility is one of the things that jumps out at you on tape,” Florida State co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. “Not a real big guy, but he's not small, but he plays close to the ball, plays a fairly physical position, and really plays linebacker. He allows them to essentially play nickel defense all the time, and he's as good as a linebacker, even though he's not typical linebacker size, and obviously he's good as a defensive back. He's able to cover and do a great job that way.

"He's hard to fool. He doesn't bite the fakes and things like that. He understands his position.”

Sanders steered clear of comparing Peppers to any other players he has prepared for, but he made clear he is in the upper echelon.

"The last 28 years there's been a lot of good players, but he's unique,” Sanders said. “He's unique in all the things he's able to do.”

And now comes the more-than-likely task of replacing him.

Peppers hasn’t announced his plans, whether he will return to Michigan or head to the NFL, but most pundits think he will move on. Mel Kiper, ESPN’s draft analyst, has Peppers ranked the No. 1 safety and said he’s a top-10 or top-15 NFL draft pick.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown clearly has begun shaping defensive plans and coming up with personnel options should Peppers decide to head to the NFL.

Bowl practices are used, in part, to give extra work to younger players, and several have impressed Brown as potential successors to Peppers if the Orange Bowl is, indeed, his final college game.

Brown on Wednesday said freshman safety Josh Metellus and walk-on safety Jordan Glasgow, who has particularly impressed Brown during bowl practices, are in line to fill the void should Peppers leave.

“This Josh Metellus now — we’re really excited about him,” Brown said. “He can play safety and he can kind of be the poor man’s Jabrill Peppers, too. We’ve got to get him a little bigger maybe. He can do a lot of the things we ask Jabrill to do. I’m not saying he’s Jabrill Peppers. I’m just saying he’s the poor man’s Jabrill Peppers. I think he could play either safety position. He’s an understands-concept guy.”

Looking ahead to the Orange Bowl, Brown said Noah Furbush would play in place of Peppers in big personnel groups. He said if Peppers got hurt, Metellus “would eat up some of those plays.”

And then there’s Glasgow, the youngest of three brothers who have played for the Wolverines — older brother Graham is a Lions offensive lineman, and Ryan is Michigan’s nose tackle ready to depart for a spot in the NFL. The older brothers have always said Jordan is the best athlete of the three.

During bowl practices, Brown said they’ve moved Glasgow around.

“I think we found this guy a home,” Brown said. “We kind of fooled with him in it. We’re gonna be different at the safety position. I don’t know if I want to take Josh and pull him out of there full time and turn him into the viper.  But boy wouldn’t it be wonderful if this guy (Glasgow) continues to mature, because he’s a different guy, but he has those qualities. The beauty of it is we still have Noah who has really practiced extremely well over the last six, seven weeks.”

Brown took over Michigan’s defense before the start of this year and moved Peppers from safety into this hybrid role that takes advantage of his athleticism. He believes Peppers is the best player in college football and appreciated his willingness to make changes without questioning.

When Brown arrived, he read that linebacker was not a position of strength for the Wolverines and then he realized that maybe everyone was right about that.

“Then I’m looking around, ‘Who the hell is going to play?’” Brown said. “You take (Peppers) and move him there. This is an important deal — he could have looked at me and said, ‘Are you nuts? I’m 205 pounds and I’m gonna play linebacker? Get outta here.’ Then what’s the reaction from the entire group the rest of the way?

“It’s a big deal. I don’t think people realize how big a deal that is. He just went, ‘OK, let’s go.’ We evolved it so it became a big deal. I don’t think it’s hurt his pro deal. Player of the year defense? I don’t think we hurt him. Where will he play? Me, I’d play him like he’s doing. The NFL is no different now — let him play.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis