Jabrill Peppers says he tries to lay low going to classes. He doesn’t wear football gear, hoping it will help him avoid attention.
On a football field, though, laying low is impossible.
No. 5 is everywhere on Michigan’s defense and special teams, and presumably, he’ll see time on offense at some point as well. He plays in the box, in the secondary, on the line and perhaps in the nightmares of various coaches around the Big Ten.
He opened 2016 with a tackle for loss on the first play from scrimmage, and logic suggests there will be more tone-setting plays to come. That’s because, under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, aggressive play calling is the new normal.
“He’s a very aggressive defensive caller, so we just make him look good, try to make him as right as possible with anything he calls, even if it puts us at a disadvantage,” Peppers said. “We just try to make them look good, man. Because he trusts us, he lets us go out there and play, and that’s the least we could do.”
When Brown came to Michigan from Boston College, he showed Peppers film of Matt Milano, the Eagles’ version of Peppers from last season. He wanted to show the versatile defensive back how he would be used in his defense. And one game into the season, Peppers seems sufficiently impressed with his new coach.
“Once we all really got the defense, and started adding our own swagger and our own attitude to it, man, it was just clicking,” Peppers said.
Peppers, of course, is the linchpin. If he was not already the most indispensable, he likely is now after his backup, Noah Furbush, went down with an undisclosed injury. There are players behind Peppers, but none can alter the game in nearly as many ways.
He said much of his job is similar — though he plays in the box much more — but Peppers now said he considers himself savvier than a year ago.
“Like down and distance situations, reading the quarterback’s drops, reading the receivers’ releases,” he said. “Now I’m in the box, reading the guard pull, reading the down block. Just things like that. And I just feel as though, like a lot of us do, we’ve just been here before. We know what we’ve gotta do, so let’s just go out there and do it.”
That manifested as a strong day against Hawaii. Peppers had eight tackles, two for loss and one sack as part of a unit that held the Rainbow Warriors to just three points. The Wolverines scored on two interceptions returned for touchdowns, and they forced another fumble. It was as strong a defensive day as Michigan fans could have hoped for.
But even though Hawaii put together only one long drive in the first half — with mostly starters in the game for the Wolverines — Peppers wasn’t entirely content. When the Rainbow Warriors made their field goal, it curtailed his hope of a season-opening shutout.
“We wanted to shut those guys out,” he said. “We wanted to just come out and make a statement. We’ve seen a lot of teams struggle in week one. We feel as though we had the hardest camp. We feel as though we’ve got the best head guy. So we just want to go out there and make a statement no matter who we play.”
On that drive, Peppers said Hawaii simply called good plays to match up against Michigan’s scheme. He said the Rainbow Warriors exploited Michigan’s gaps, leaving room for quarterback Ikaika Woolsey to scramble and complete passes.
He was willing to concede that some success was expected (“You know they’re gonna make plays, this is Division I football,” he said,) but he also wants them to keep contain better and “gap integrity.”
Still, what Michigan did against Hawaii worked. And Peppers knows it.
“If they don’t score, and you keep taking the ball over and putting points on the board,” Peppers said, “you should like your chances.”