Entering the 2017-18 season, replacing Jabrill Peppers is the undisputed top priority for the Michigan football team.
The redshirt sophomore took ‘making an impact all over the field’ to a whole new level last year, spending time at linebacker, safety, nickelback, running back, slot receiver and wildcat quarterback. Peppers more than lived up to the hype he brought with him to Ann Arbor as the No. 2 player in the 2014 recruiting class, and the accolades poured in.
He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Linebacker of the Year and Return Specialist of the Year honors — and that’s just on the conference level. Peppers, a Unanimous First Team All-American, also received the Paul Hornung Award for his trademark quality of versatility in his final season as a Wolverine.
But Peppers’ main role was the VIPER — a hybrid linebacker/safety in Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s system.
The Wolverines caught a glimpse of life without Peppers in their 33-32 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. That game pushed the question of who would replace him at the VIPER next season to the forefront.
Halfway through spring ball, the spot is still up for grabs, but sophomore defensive back Khaleke Hudson looks likely to be Michigan’s answer.
“It means a lot that Coach Brown trusts me enough to be the VIPER,” Hudson said. “… Everyone’s been working hard, but it just means a lot to be there. I feel that it’s a good fit for me, to be able to play in the box (and) play outside.
“It’s a position where you could be all over the field, you could be at safety, you could be at linebacker, you could be in the slot, so you have a lot of responsibilities.”
Hudson and fellow sophomore defensive back Josh Metellus have been taking reps at both VIPER and safety so far this spring, but Hudson seems to have the upper hand over his classmate. Despite minimal playing time on defense last year, Hudson did see action at safety in two games, contributing eight tackles and one pass breakup.
While splitting time at multiple positions could serve as a distraction for some, Hudson sees the experience as beneficial to his growth. As the VIPER, Hudson would have to balance pass defense and run stoppage, both of which require a different mindset and skillset.
“You see everything from a different perspective,” Hudson said. “You might see everything farther back (and) then you see it up close in the box. Just knowing what everyone else does makes your job even easier.
“One play, you could tackle someone who’s fast, the next you could tackle someone big and strong. You just have to be prepared for who your opponent is.”
Hudson made a name for himself on the special teams unit last season for his ability to see a play develop ahead of time. Blocking a punt against both Illinois and Indiana — putting him in a tie for the team lead — Hudson was named the special teams player of the game twice.
Guided by Michigan special teams coach Chris Partridge, who also heads the linebacker unit, Hudson carved out a role for himself on kickoffs, punt returns and returns. Interestingly, Partridge was the head coach at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey where he helped develop Peppers into the special teams threat that he is.
“He coaches it well. He gets us prepared for each team,” Hudson said. “… I just worked hard, and good things happen when you work hard.”
With that strong work ethic on display in spring ball as well, Hudson has distinguished himself from the competition at VIPER. While the question of replacing Peppers will likely persist well into the fall, Hudson has begun to give the Wolverines an answer.
And with his new role starting to take shape, Hudson has begun to hear a different question.
“Everyone’s asking me about, ‘How does it feel replacing Jabrill?’ ” Hudson said. “But I just take it as, ‘I’m gonna play the best I play and be the best Khaleke,’ and just work hard and do everything top notch and work 100 percent every day.”