A name came up Tuesday at Schembechler Hall, one that doesn’t come up too often in comparisons.
That name is etched on the list of Heisman Trophy winners forever, as Jabrill Peppers’ could be as well this December. The name constantly made headlines and highlight reels for electrifying plays, as Peppers does. The name is in the Michigan football record books a handful of times, as Peppers already is.
Charles Woodson does not have many peers in Michigan football history when it comes to the impact he made on games from 1995 to 1997. But as Peppers stars on defense, dabbles on offense, flips the field on special teams and vaults his name into Heisman consideration, the comparisons become harder and harder to ignore.
Peppers, now a redshirt sophomore, said before he arrived at Michigan from Paramus (N.J.) Catholic that he wanted to be the best player in program history. The road to that title goes through Woodson, among others. Peppers was quick to credit the future Hall of Famer when a reporter brought him up, saying he didn’t fully understand what an impact Woodson made until he started college football.
“Charles Woodson, if you just look at what he did for his teams, it’s just mind-boggling,” Peppers said. “In high school, I used to embrace all that. Now that I’m actually playing at this level, seeing what he’s able to accomplish and do for his team, take away half the field, and people scared to throw at him — big-time plays in big-time moments.”
Peppers used to love being considered in the same conversation. He admits he followed all of the media coverage while he was ranked as one of the top recruits in the nation during high school.
Now, in a much bigger spotlight as a Michigan star, Peppers says he tries to avoid the attention as much as he can.
“I found myself trying to … I wasn’t happy with that,” Peppers said. “I was trying to make everybody happy, trying to impress too many people, and then you’re not happy. … Whatever people say about me, I appreciate it. You’re watching, so I must be doing something right.”
The biggest obstacle now is that the discussions are undeniable.
Peppers earns commendation from his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who officially launched Peppers’ Heisman campaign Oct. 8 at Rutgers after Peppers ran for two touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback. Two weeks earlier, Harbaugh delivered the understatement of the year when he smiled and said Peppers was “good at football.”
He also draws praise from his teammates, including fifth-year senior offensive tackle Erik Magnuson, who called Peppers the best player he had ever seen. And he gets it from those who have been around him for years, such as Chris Partridge, Michigan’s linebackers and special teams coordinator and Peppers’ high school coach at Paramus Catholic.
By all accounts, the 21-year-old appears to manage it well.
“Jabrill was an All-American as a freshman in high school, so he’s had, on a smaller scale, the same type of hype around him and the same things that have come to it,” Partridge said. “He’s able to handle it and focus, and the thing that Jabrill does best is he focuses on every play or every minute of a meeting like it’s the most important thing. That’s what makes him who he is.”
Partridge said he has never seen a limit to Peppers’ capacity, but Michigan keeps testing him. In the last game, Peppers played his most offense of the season. On one play, he even planned to throw the ball, an indication that more tricks may be yet to come.
Peppers still tries to augment his skill set, too. Tuesday in practice, Partridge said Peppers was sitting out for a play and watched former high school teammate and defensive end Rashan Gary make a move on the pass rush to get to the quarterback. Peppers went up to Gary after the play and asked if he could show him the move later.
“If he makes a mistake, for example, it’s unbelievable,” Partridge said. “Because if he makes a mistake, it’s only going to happen once, probably in his whole life. He fixes it.
“He also tries to make sure his teammates don’t make that same mistake. That’s the type of player he is. So we’ve used him on offense as a decoy, and he might be dead tired because he just ran an 18-play drive (on defense), and then he goes in and he has to run a fake jet sweep or something. He’s not getting the ball. He’s running it 100 miles per hour. Your team sees that.”
Peppers himself tries to stay humble — he said Tuesday he would give himself a C-minus for his performance in the first half of the season.
But as the season goes on, Peppers’ numbers continue and the Heisman talks intensify, the connections between him and Woodson will only intensify, and Peppers doesn’t deny his own ability. At one point Tuesday, he even indulged the temptation to compare.
“What I might agree with or where I might say I edge him is athleticism,” Peppers said. “He’s a little taller, rangier guy than I am. But I feel like if we was to race, if I was born back in the day, I probably feel like I would beat him in a race.”
Maybe some comparisons are inevitable.