By Jason Rubinstein, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 14, 2013
Reporters, friends and family crowded a glorified media closet that, on the afternoon of May 27, 2013, served as an ESPNU studio to broadcast the college decision of a 6-foot, 205-pound athlete who can score from virtually any position — Jabrill Peppers.
Once the cameras started rolling, Peppers dove right into a rap:
“I could see it now
The fans scream and yellin’
As I’m walking out that tunnel
Wearing a winged helmet
Go blue, baby. I’m going to Michigan.”
Seconds later, ESPN’s No. 2 high-school player in the country, an Under Armour All-America Game invitee, put on the winged helmet. Beaming with happiness, he sealed his commitment to Michigan.
The Wolverines hadn’t seen a commit with his potential two-way abilities since they signed Charles Woodson over a decade ago. The ex-Don Bosco Preparatory (N.J.) and current Paramus Catholic (N.J.) star had become Michigan’s highest-ranked commit ever, and any doubts about coach Brady Hoke as a recruiter were squashed.
The Woodson comparisons immediately ensued. Yes, Charles Woodson, the Michigan legend and surefire NFL Hall of Famer. Comparing a high-school senior to arguably the best Michigan defender ever seems a bit unfair, but the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner loves it.
“I don’t think he should dampen the expectations, but he should embrace the expectations,” Woodson said in an phone interview with the Daily last week. “From everything I have read about Jabrill, he is a very confident player, and you bring that confidence to the next level. It’s good to have expectations, and I see him coming in ready to perform and live up to what everyone thinks.”
Starting for Don Bosco Preparatory is an honor. The football factory in Ramsey, N.J., has churned out dozens of Division I players. The school has a military-like setup with its players working their way up, learning from the upperclassmen along the way and earning a starting varsity spot by junior or senior year. But Peppers wasn’t about conformity. He ran a 4.4 40-yard dash and won the state championship for the 100-and 200-meter race. More impressively, though, was his ability to cut without losing any of his record-breaking speed.
So Peppers broke the status quo and was thrown into a starting role as a freshman. At the time, Don Bosco was the No. 1 team in the state and played longtime rival, No. 4 St. Peter’s, in the state semifinal. Regional supremacy was on the line.
St. Peter’s had a simple game plan: exploit the 15-year-old freshman corner and throw his way all game. After all, on the other side of the field was one of the state’s best cornerbacks, current Colorado defensive back Yuri Wright.
But it didn’t take long for St. Peter’s to reconsider its original plan. In the first quarter, Peppers scored on an 87-yard blocked field-goal return. In the second quarter, he intercepted a pass and returned the ball 94 yards for a touchdown. Don Bosco won easily, 37-0. Fans and coaches alike were sold. And any questions of Peppers’s ability were thrown away.
“That game put me on the map,” Peppers said in a phone interview. “That was definitely the game breaker that put me over the top.”
And behind Peppers’s heroic plays, Don Bosco went on to win the state title. The expectations to perform continued into his sophomore season, but no matter how large they were, Peppers produced. In his sophomore year, he scored 22 offensive touchdowns and accumulated over 1,000 total yards, leading his school to another state championship.
Despite the overwhelming success, Peppers needed a change from the football-before-everything culture. The football system at Don Bosco was too much to handle, prompting Peppers to transfer to another New Jersey high school, Paramus Catholic, which values academics over athletics — a value that should suit him well at Michigan.
“I’m definitely enjoying my life a lot better,” Peppers said. “I got a group of guys around me that want to see me succeed not only on the football field, but also off of it. Winning is important here, but it’s not the only important thing. I think some coaches get caught up with themselves rather than actually producing young men on and off the field.”
Even though the Don Bosco culture didn’t mean much to him anymore, the idea was that whatever team he suited up for would win. He was simply the best player in New Jersey, virtually impossible to tackle due to his explosive speed and knack for breaking tackles.
But maintaining the success wouldn’t be easy. Gone was the Division I talent at every position. But with Peppers’s talent, it didn’t really matter. He eclipsed 1,500 all-purpose yards and tallied 22 touchdowns en route to his third state championship. Peppers was paramount in the title game, rushing 19 times for 212 yards and two scores in a 37-34 win over Bergen Catholic. Once again, Peppers exceeded the lofty expectations.
Though he was recruited mainly for defensive purposes, Peppers’s high-school highlight reel shows an offensive weapon. Just two months ago, Peppers broke 10 tackles en route to a 30-yard touchdown run that ended up being ESPN’s No. 1 play of the weekend. And because of his ability to contribute on both sides of the ball, it is inevitable for Wolverine fans to draw comparisons to Woodson.
Peppers will have his fair share of mistakes early on, and teams will certainly throw his way. But when this happens, Peppers will still think he’s better than his opponent and shrug off his mistake.
“My mindset is that I have been playing this game my whole life,” Peppers said. “I know what I got to do, my coaches explain to me the game plan, so if I am making a mistake, it’s on me, and I don’t want to chalk it up as a freshman mistake.”
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison recruited Peppers as a cornerback, but it will be hard to keep the offensive monster off the field — something ex-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had a hard time doing with Woodson.
“My main focus was defense,” Woodson said. “But Lloyd Carr always let me know that if my defense ever slacked off, even a little bit, then he would take me off of offense. That always made me work that much harder and make sure that whatever was asked of me on defense that I got it done.”
Carr’s tactics worked wonders for Woodson. At the end of the 1997 season, Woodson became the first defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
Will Peppers have a similar role? He certainly wants to. But like Woodson said, players can’t get ahead of themselves.
Many Wolverine fans want Peppers to be an all-purpose player, but before he can do that, he needs to find a primary role.
“I love (playing both ways),” Peppers said. “I love being able to have as many big-impact plays on the game as I possibly can. I definitely would love doing that, but first I want make sure that I’m fully committed and understand the defense and what coach Mattison is trying to do before they start moving me around to the offensive side of the ball.
“I’m all for it and want to do it and try to make as many plays as I possibly can.”
Though he hasn’t yet graduated high school, many already expect secure interceptions and record countless tackles. Such immense pressure can be detrimental, but if history is any indication, Peppers will far exceed the benchmarks set for him.
Woodson made it clear that the tradition of Michigan football, combined with Hoke’s coaching style, will help Peppers immensely. Hoke was an assistant when Woodson played, so the cornerback is very familiar with Hoke’s coaching style.
“Coach Hoke is a guy that truly and genuinely cares about the players,” Woodson said. “He will treat him like a young man and allow him to grow naturally. He will allow the assistant coaches to coach him up and develop him into the player he can be.”
Having grown up a Michigan fan, Peppers wants to be the player fans remember forever with the likes of Tom Harmon, Gerald Ford, Bennie Oosterbaan and Desmond Howard. He wants to be able to come to Michigan and see his legacy continue vicariously through a Michigan Legends uniform.
On whether he could be better than Woodson, Peppers had a clear answer: “Absolutely. I want to be the best player to ever wear that maize and blue.”
Peppers’s cockiness didn’t bother Woodson. Instead, it made him happy knowing players with Peppers’s confidence will suit up for Michigan.
“I look forward to seeing him in the maize and blue,” Woodson said. “Hopefully he can help our team out.”
Expectations come with every recruit for Michigan. But Peppers’s have been astronomically greater. When will these die down? What if a great career doesn’t eclipse Woodson’s?
When is it enough?