Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh ran out of fingers at a news conference last fall when he was trying to count all the places Jabrill Peppers had played during the first couple months of the 2016 season. Harbaugh and the Wolverines will need all hands on deck to try to replace Peppers’ impact on the field next season.
Peppers declared for the NFL in January after two healthy years in Ann Arbor. During that time, he racked up 125 total tackles at various positions on defense and six touchdowns on special teams and offense. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2016 thanks to his versatility, his impact on defense and his nation-leading 25.8 punt return yards per game. Harbaugh lauded Peppers several times as one of the best players he’s coached or seen during his long career in football.
Michigan assistant Chris Partridge, who also was Peppers’ head coach in high school, said last week that while Peppers is a rare talent, replacing his varied skills is his responsibility as a linebackers coach and special-teams coordinator.
“You’re not going to have another Jabrill Peppers,” Partridge said. “In terms of replacing him, you’re not going to replace him. Is his position and his skill replaceable? Of course. That’s what we’re here for.”
On defense, rising sophomores Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson appear to be the top options to step in at the Viper position that Peppers played under coordinator Don Brown. The outside linebacker spot has usually been the most dynamic and disruptive player in Brown’s scheme during the last several years at Michigan and Boston College.
The ability to learn quickly helped Peppers to perform the wide variety of jobs required at the position while he adjusted to playing linebacker for the first time. Partridge said the job description will change to fit new players in 2017 (“I think it has to”), but football savvy remains at the top of the list of what the coaches are looking for there. He said Metellus and Hudson have been fierce competitors through the first few spring practices.
“Metellus is a very savvy football player. He steps on the field, he understands angles and how to get things done.” Partridge said. “He doesn’t have to be as taught as some other football players. He gets it. He understands schemes.”
Metellus made his first career start against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, which Peppers missed due to a hamstring injury. The rookie made six tackles after finding his bearings on the field.
A good portion of Peppers’ highlight moments at Michigan came while returning punts. The Wolverines have a healthy stockpile of speedy skill players who could take over that role. Partridge said he’s had 15 different players working as returners this year, but it’s far too early for him to say if any have separated themselves from the bunch.
Running back Chris Evans is the only player on Michigan’s current roster who returned a punt last season (he had one return for 15 yards). Wide receivers Eddie McDoom and Grant Perry, if he’s reinstated to the team after being suspended this winter, could get a shot there among several others on campus this spring and incoming freshmen who will arrive in June.
Partridge hopes whoever wins that job will have a little more space to operate than Peppers did last year. Michigan was aggressive on punts last season and blocked four of them. Moving forward, the plan is to focus more on setting up long returns.
“One of my goals for this team is to be a very dynamic return team,” he said. “I want to lead the country in punt returns.”
To get there, Partridge has assigned graduate assistant Drew Terrell this spring to work specifically with all the candidates for the return job. Terrell played his college career at Stanford, partially under Harbaugh’s staff, and was a three-time all-conference returner. He’s one more name to add to the crew of coaches and players working this spring to plug all the holes Peppers once filled.