Jabrill Peppers has played eight different positions in 11 games this season, and has thrived at all of them. Whether he returns kicks, breaks up passes in the secondary or even takes snaps at quarterback for the No. 10 Michigan football team, the redshirt freshman never seems to come up empty.
Like a skilled philosophy professor who makes sense out of any preposterous question, Peppers can take any situation and contort it to suddenly make sense on the field.
Three defenders closing in on him on a broken play in the backfield? It was a touchdown against Rutgers.
A cornerback blew his assignment on a screen play? Peppers was there for the tackle for loss against Northwestern.
Offense sputtering against Michigan State? Peppers’ mere presence forced the Spartans to take a timeout, right after they had just called another.
Though Peppers doesn’t have a position he calls home, it doesn’t matter. His explosiveness makes him a threat from any angle, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is impressed.
“He’s such good player,” Harbaugh said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday. “I can think of five different positions he could be really good at in football. Can somebody be the Willie Mays of football? Can somebody be the five-tool player, the five-position player? Maybe. Maybe that’ll end up being Jabrill Peppers.
“He’ll find his absolute best position as you go along. It’s interesting to think about and consider the possibilities.”
Peppers began the season only playing safety and returning kicks and punts. Eventually, his role was expanded to include snaps at cornerback, nickelback and linebacker.
As October rolled around, however, his explosiveness proved impossible to not take advantage of on offense. Learning plays in mere 5-10 minute increments at practice, Peppers has seen his offensive role expand each week, and he had the second-most carries at running back for the Wolverines in their 28-16 win over Penn State.
“Jabrill is an explosive football player,” said offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. “He can make plays for us, and he’s a guy that you want. You put the ball in his hands, he can make great things happen.
“He’s got that DNA in him that makes him very special. He’s an NFL player playing at the college level.”
Now that Peppers is a regular in all three phases of the game, Michigan fans have begun to think back to the Wolverines’ last three-way star — 1997 Heisman award winner Charles Woodson.
Though Peppers declined to make a comparison on Tuesday, he wasn’t too shy to admit that emulating Woodson was on his mind.
When asked about his favorite moment in the storied Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, Peppers recalled Woodson’s 1997 performance, when the future NFL Hall of Famer took a punt 78 yards for a score, nearly scored again on a 37-yard reception and intercepted a pass in the end zone to keep the Wolverines’ national championship season alive.
“I was too young when it happened,” Peppers said. “But when you’re a fan, you like to do your research and watch old videos. When Charles Woodson (had) the punt return, catch and a pick in the back of the end zone, and after the game I just see him with the rose in his mouth walking off and smiling. … That was a big moment. I guess we want to come in and try to do the same thing, have the same feeling.”
The question surrounding Peppers is no longer whether he’ll make plays against the eighth-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday, but where. Peppers insists he’ll play any position that helps the team win, but his teammates don’t think that narrows it down much.
“That’s pretty hard,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh when asked where he would play Peppers. “I’m glad I’m not a coach to decide that, because he’s a very elusive player.”
Though where he’ll play come Saturday remains in question, Peppers has proven that there’s really no wrong answer.
“He’s an athlete,” said senior safety Jarrod Wilson. “He’s going to make plays on whatever side of the ball you put him on.”