True to Michigan form, when redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers took on the Sam linebacker position this spring – a unique spot he had never played before, that no one in a Wolverines uniform played last year and one in which no one else on the roster is in a position to really challenge him – he went hunting for some competition.
Peppers found what he was looking for in the film room. When new defensive coordinator Don Brown showed Michigan’s jack-of-all-trades athlete tape of previous players who filled that role in his defensive scheme, he was hoping it would be a teaching tool, maybe even a sales pitch. Instead, Peppers took it as a challenge.
Brown scrolled through a litany of tackles for loss and forced fumbles made by 2015 Boston College linebacker Matt Milano and asked his new player if he thought he could do the same.
“I’m like I know I could do that, coach. Probably better,” Peppers said. “…I’m a competitor I want to outdo what he did. I want to outdo whoever has played that position.”
Milano led the Eagles, the country’s No. 1 defense in yardage allowed, with 17.5 tackles for loss last season. The three players who played in that spot before him are all on NFL rosters and all hit at least double digits in stops behind the line of scrimmage while playing for Brown. Peppers said he and Brown had a laugh about the “probably better” comment, but while his predecessors are far from slouches, none of them had the same heralded raw athleticism as Michigan’s budding star.
Peppers impacted all three phases of the game in his first full collegiate season last fall. He played safety, returned punts and lined up at several different positions on offense. He’s a darkhorse Heisman candidate for 2016 despite primarily playing defense and learning a new position.
The first few weeks of learning to follow pulling guards and use his hands near the line of scrimmage were frustrating, he said. After 15 practices, he’s starting to feel natural and let his athleticism take over.
“I’m very comfortable,” Peppers said. “Football is football. All you’ve got to do is put in the time and the work in and you’ll adjust accordingly.”
The coaching staff didn’t use him at all on offense this spring, opting instead to let him focus on learning the new defense and his role in it. Peppers said he fully expects to have at least as much involvement on offense in 2016 as he did during his rookie season. He’ll also contribute in the return game and can bounce back to the safety position if the situation calls for it.
“He’s a smart football player that can take on a lot and we’re going to ask him to take on a lot,” said linebackers coach Chris Partridge, who also coached Peppers in high school. “I think the sky’s the limit on what positions he can play. We might even line him up at nose tackle this year if we can.”
Brown said Peppers’ speed at the line of scrimmage and ability to drop into coverage will give him some opportunities to get creative with how the Sam linebacker is deployed. The coordinator said last week that Michigan had no intention of showing any of those new wrinkles at the team’s spring game this past Friday night. Peppers had one tackle in a limited amount of snaps in the scrimmage.
“You won’t see it on display Friday, that’s for sure, but he’s doing enough stuff that keeps his plate full,” Brown said. “He’s playing at a high level there, so I’m happy with him. From a coverage standpoint, it’s everything we expected. I think he’s picked up the linebacker pieces pretty well as well. Like everybody else he needs more time, more reps. …You expect a lot at that spot. We’re gonna get what we expect. There’s no question.”
Peppers, who sat out Michigan’s bowl season with an undisclosed hand injury, said the biggest leap he made this offseason was in maturity. A full year in the spotlight that many expected would follow the former blue-chipper to Ann Arbor helped him do some growing up. He believes a year of experience has been a big help for him and for the defense as whole -- both will need to brace themselves for sky-high expectations in 2016.
“We’ve been out there in tough situations. We’ve been out there in tough games,” Peppers said. “We know how to handle ourselves a bit differently. I think that when the heat is on we’re not panicking, we’re not nervous. It’s nothing new. With an acquisition like Coach Brown it just makes the things that you can do with the guys we have ... limitless.”