Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge has known Jabrill Peppers since high school, longer than any of the other coaches on the Wolverines’ staff. In that time, Partridge has seen Peppers play just about every position, but even he is still surprised when he walks outside for practice and sees Peppers trying out a new role — kicker.
Yes, Michigan’s all-purpose threat has even attempted some field goals in his spare time. And while kicking won’t quite make it into his repertoire this year, the redshirt sophomore is comfortable with just about anything.
In his breakout season a year ago, Peppers played cornerback, safety, running back, wide receiver, punt returner, kick returner and even wildcat quarterback. In the spring, new defensive coordinator Don Brown moved him to strong-side linebacker with promising results. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, the converted defensive back is on the small side for that position, but Partridge — who coached Peppers at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic — said Peppers had played linebacker as far back as high school.
“Whether we tricked him and told him it was a [defensive back] is a different story,” Partridge said with a smile. “It was a similar thing. When you have a kid that’s able to do that mentally and fit in, it makes your defense so much more versatile. He’s doing similar things, just on a higher scale.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said at the team’s media day last weekend that Peppers would play in all three phases of the game this season. Besides his natural defensive position, he can be a big-play threat with the ball, on offense and perhaps even more so in the return game.
Peppers’ snap workload peaked in the 90s last year at Minnesota, but then the coaching staff began to trim that number to avoid wearing him out. Harbaugh said he would ideally use Peppers for 90-95 plays again this season, with the maximum being 100. Peppers is undaunted by any figure.
“I’ve been doing that since Pop Warner, man,” Peppers said. “I don’t know why people make a big deal out of that. I’m just playing football. I guess it’s because it’s at this level, but it’s not as hard as you guys make it seem to be.”
As for the switch to linebacker, the coaching staff put quite a bit of thought into it. What Peppers lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and aggressiveness. Last spring, Partridge noted that from linebacker, Peppers can get to the quarterback in less than a second, so perhaps the move enables him to blitz more.
He also makes the entire defense more versatile. Brown’s base defense is a 4-3, but having a converted defensive back as one of the linebackers effectively allows Michigan to move back and forth between a 4-3 and a 4-2-5. If the Wolverines need an extra man in coverage in a passing situation, they won’t have to substitute — they can just use Peppers, who can do everything. Meanwhile, with a flexible body in the middle, the rest of the front seven can focus on pass rush and the defensive backfield can drop back in coverage more, leaving Peppers to fill in the gaps.
“I said it in the spring and I’ll just continue to say it: We’re going to give this guy a lot to do,” Brown said. “He’s going to have different jobs based on package. Calling him just a linebacker’s probably not fair. Calling him a hybrid’s probably not fair. ’Cause we’ll ask him to do a lot of stuff. But that’s the beauty of it.”
As brightly as the spotlight shined on Peppers last year, it will be even brighter this year. His numbers (18 carries for 72 yards, eight receptions for 79 yards, 45 tackles with 10 pass breakups, eight kick returns for 223 yards and 17 punt returns for 194 yards) could improve in every phase.
Opponents will pay even more attention to him than last year — when Peppers first entered on offense last year, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called multiple timeouts to strategize against him — and he will be watched everywhere. National attention will follow, and Peppers’ own coaches will have big plans for him too.
They don’t have to trick him to move him around anymore.
“Nope, nope, nope. Now he’s good,” Partridge said. “He’s matured, and he understands what the team’s about. Jabrill embraces it, man. He wants to play. I swear to you, if you said, ‘Hey Jabrill, you gotta play guard this week,’ he’d be like, ‘All right. I gotta [learn] it, but how do I do it?’ Just ‘cause he loves the game of football. He’s truly, truly got this passion for football that he wants to learn everything and wants to take on everything.”
That includes even, whenever he gets the chance, kicker.
“Just little stuff like that, he wants to try to do it all,” Partridge said. “There’s no tricking him anymore. He’s good to go.”