Khaleke Hudson has always looked up to Jabrill Peppers. Before Peppers — a first-team All-American and first-round NFL Draftee — went to the pros, Hudson would study him from the sideline.
“You want to play like players that play like (Peppers),” said Michigan’s sophomore VIPER. “I feel that he had a big impact on the way I’m playing this year.”
Hudson headlined Michigan’s defense with one big play after another. There was the nearly blocked punt, the forced intentional grounding and the forced fumble — just to mention three of them. With plays like that, Hudson led the Wolverines (4-2 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) in a 33-10 win over Minnesota.
He finished with 13 tackles, two sacks, six and a half tackles-for-loss and one forced fumble. Wherever the Golden Gophers (1-5, 4-5) tried to move the ball, Hudson was there.
He was there to sack quarterback Demry Croft, and he was there to contain running back Rodney Smith. Saturday night, he had the best game of his career.
While he called Peppers a “fearless player” after the game, not even the illustrious Peppers ever had a defensive performance like Hudson did Saturday night.
“On each play (defensive coordinator Don Brown) gave us, we were just executing it, and it just happened that I was in the backfield every time,” Hudson said. “They were throwing a zone read type of scheme, and I was just in the backfield disrupting it.”
His best play, according to junior safety Tyree Kinnel, came in the third quarter. Croft stepped up in the pocket for the Golden Gophers, then scrambled to the right. Hudson pursued, and slashed at his arm to knock the ball loose.
“I was coming behind him,” Hudson said. “I’d just seen it the whole time, so I went for it, and (the ball) came out.”
Added Kinnel: “He got the game ball for the defense. … The opportunity came, and he ate with it. He was definitely a ‘dude’ tonight, as coach Brown would say.”
The fumble, which Hudson forced and redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich recovered, was a turning point for the defense. Brown always preaches that when Michigan gets up on the scoreboard, it’s the defense’s job to keep opponents down.
Hudson’s forced fumble did just that. The Gophers totaled just 164 yards of offense, and didn’t reach the end zone again after their second drive of the first quarter.
Michigan’s new VIPER played a big part in that.
One of the Hudson’s most memorable plays, though, came on one of the only times he didn’t make the tackle.
Late in the second quarter, Minnesota lined up to punt. Hudson burst toward the punter but arrived too soon. He jumped early, and Minnesota punter Ryan Santoso hadn’t even let go of the ball yet. Hudson flew by, and the punt sailed away successfully.
“I should’ve kept my eyes on the ball,” Hudson said and laughed. “I jumped straight up in the air instead of jumping at his foot. (Special teams coordinator Chris) Partridge is probably going to get after me about that.”
While Hudson didn’t get the blocked punt, he continued to show what he had all game.
“What a game,” Harbaugh said. “What a game. Spectacular performance by Khaleke Hudson. … Looked like he was everywhere. His strong hands really showed up in this game. He was everywhere he was supposed to be and making sure tackles. Works extremely hard and great to see it pay off.”
Everyone saw last year what Peppers was able to do in the VIPER position, and now that Hudson has had a half a season to settle in, he’s looking more and more like his predecessor.
“(Peppers) was making plays every week,” Kinnel said. “Now everyone got to see Khaleke do it.”