As the Heisman race heats up entering Week 7, one name stands out, mostly because it's the name of a defensive player, not a quarterback, running back or wide receiver: Michigan junior linebacker/defensive back Jabrill Peppers..
We saw Peppers crack the top five on ESPN’s Heisman Watch last weekend, with a green arrow indicating his upward trend.
But here at TSFJ, we have seen Pepper’s potential from Day 1. He has accumulated 35 total tackles, 25 solo tackles and three sacks so far on the season, and he is tied for 11th in the nation for tackles for a loss (10).
He is also multifaceted. Peppers saw offensive snaps at quarterback and running back during Michigan’s 78-0 scrimmage against Rutgers last weekend. His two rushing touchdowns were the fourth and fifth TDs of his career.
While his play has been steady, if not impressive in most games, his position may be a factor in the final Heisman decision given that this year’s award will be hotly contested, with more established offensive players like Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Jackson both having standout seasons.
But Peppers has three things that set him apart and make him larger than his competition.
Peppers has a knack for big plays
In a “what have you done for me lately” game, Peppers continues to show why he is an invaluable member of the Wolverines' squad with his play on both sides of the ball. The drawback to Peppers' play is that defensive guys don’t get the big numbers or highlight reel plays that catapult them into the national spotlight. Or do they?
When your return game is that strong, it’s hard for people to ignore. Peppers has 14 punt returns for 249 yards and three kick returns for 95 yards. He also has six rushes for 98 yards, good for an average of 19.6 yards per carry. The jack-of-all-trades is second on the team in all-purpose yardage with 442 yards —just one yard short of the team leader, freshman running back Chris Evans.
Playing on the big stage
One of the marks against Christian McCaffrey last year in the Heisman race was that he played on the West Coast where games start as late as 8PM Pacific (11PM Eastern). Without enough eyes on Stanford’s games, McCaffrey failed to curry favor with East Coast voters.
Michigan doesn’t have that problem.
The Wolverines rank 18th in strength of schedule nationally and boast matchups against top teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State as well as the highly touted Big Ten Championship Game on December 3rd, if they make it.
Peppers has the opportunity and ability to put up big numbers against ranked teams down the stretch. We have already seen what he can do against the likes of Colorado and Rutgers, so it should be fun to watch him step up against Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes.
Playing for a high profile program
The biggest factor besides Peppers’ versatile and athletic play is the program itself and head coach, Jim Harbaugh, the founder of unconventionality in college football. Harbaugh has the ability to keep Peppers name in the Heisman conversation as those in the sports world hang on his every tweet. In a recent interview, he already touted Peppers for being able to play “12 positions” and joked about how all the coaches clamor for him on the sideline.
In the Rutgers post-game, Harbaugh told USA Today:
"If there's a better player in the country, I don't know who it is," Harbaugh said Saturday night. "There are a lot of great players out there, but this guy — to be able to coach a guy like Jabrill Peppers is a real joy. ... There's nothing he can't do. It's the darndest thing I've ever seen.
"In my humble opinion, we're looking at a Heisman Trophy winner."
Fourth-ranked Michigan has the chance to contend for one of the four College Football Playoff spots, which will also aide in Peppers' quest for a Heisman finalist spot. With the support of his coaches and teammates, the junior from New Jersey has a real shot.
“He’s just got really great instincts with the ball in his hands,” Michigan’s offensive coordinator Tim Drevno told the Detroit Free Press. “He kind of knows to feel something, and it’s second nature to him. He’s got a special thing about him. You don’t find guys like that.”
Playing DB, returning kicks, running plays out of the Wildcat…it’s like he thinks he’s Charles Woodson or something.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.