I’ve had some fun at Jabrill Peppers’ expense over the past year. There was the 2,000+ word Player's Tribune piece that Peppers somehow found the time to write during the buildup of the 2015 Ohio State Michigan game. There was the early anointment of Peppers as the next great Michigan two-way star ... despite zero interceptions and just 151 total yards of offense on the season. Finally, there was the simple fact that Peppers had one of his worst defensive games of the year against the Buckeyes, getting rocked by Ezekiel Elliott, and later embarrassed by J.T Barrett.
With all of that said, Jabrill Peppers is very, very good at football, and if the Big Ten preseason awards are any indication, Peppers could very well be the best player Ohio State faces all season. The former number three ranked prospect in America, Peppers’ combination of instincts, coverage skills, and athleticism makes him one of the most versatile and effective defensive players in the country.
Peppers will be switching positions and playing closer to the line of scrimmage in 2016, moving from a corner/safety hybrid position to a Darron Lee-esk linebacker role in 2016. While Peppers has a ways to go to match Lee's college production, there is good reason to believe that Peppers will thrive in his new role in 2016 thanks to his unrivaled versatility.
Jabrill the running back
When Jim Harbaugh said that Peppers was a ‘darn good running back,’ he wasn't kidding. While Peppers only totaled 26 touches on offense in 2015, he turned these touches into 151 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Once Peppers gets the balls in his hands, look out. Strong enough to run through arm tackles, with the speed and vision to make plays all across the field, Peppers put his playmaking ability on display early against the Buckeyes in 2015.
It takes a special football player to have the ability and mindset to cut back across the field effectively with the ball in their hands, and this is exactly what Peppers pulled off against the Silver Bullets. Gareon Conley stops an even bigger play from occurring with a nice open field tackle, but Peppers displays unnerving agility and vision for a primary defensive player. This was Peppers' best play against Ohio State, but it wouldn't be the only time in 2015 that Peppers made a big play with the ball in his hands.
Jabrill the Returner
It’s tough to know what is ever going on in Harbaugh’s head, and Peppers’ 2016 offensive involvement will likely be a week-by-week mystery this season. Still, getting Peppers the ball is a priority in Ann Arbor, and despite Peppers having a minimal season long impact on offense, his 11.4 yards/punt return average was good for 5th in the Big 10 in 2015.
Peppers’ start and stop ability is on full display here, as despite being surrounded upon catching the punt Peppers is able to escape and make a big play out of almost nothing. Peppers is yet to take a kick to the house, but massive returns against Michigan State and Minnesota last season led to some preventive measures being taken against Michigan’s punt return unit, as Peppers received just 2 punt returns in his final four regular season games of 2015.
While Peppers’ demonstrated explosiveness with the ball in his hands is a great weapon that the Wolverines do their best to utilize, Peppers is going to make his professional money on defense one day.
Jabrill the block shedder
The spread offense at its core is simply a system to get the offense’s best athletes the ball in space. To combat this, defenses have started to shift their best athletes out into space, and this is the main factor behind the decision to switch Peppers to a linebacker role in 2016. Before the snap in the below video, the quarterback identifies that he has two blockers to account for the two Wolverine defenders on the left side of the formation, which would seemingly be the recipe to spring the ensuing swing pass for a big gain.
In reality, this numbers advantage is completely wiped out by the fact that most receivers have no chance at blocking Peppers in space. Trying to tackle Peppers is hard enough, and trying to square up and block the guy is borderline impossible. Peppers’ ability to wrap-up and finish plays in the open field is made all that more impressive by a bad-ass throw down to end the play, and his 2015 season was full of similar open field blowups.
Jabrill the corner
Peppers’ versatility in 2015 was perhaps most evident when watching the array of receivers he was forced to cover all over the field. Whether it be manning up the slot receiver, or rotating back to play a deep zone as a safety, Peppers was routinely utilized all over the formation. He will continue to move around in 2016, but the expectation is that he’ll play closer to the line of scrimmage and stick to mostly slot coverage. This is what makes the fact that Peppers can consistently win one-on-one battles as an outside corner so scary.
Instead of pressing Penn State’s outside receiver, Peppers utilizes a ‘freeze’ (also called ‘catch’) technique, which is when the corner will sink their feet into the ground until the receiver makes their route known. This allows the corner to keep their balance, and they can still utilize the advantage of being lined up closer to the receiver without having to necessarily press and run with a potentially larger player.
After two steps it is clear the Nittany Lion receiver is running a slant, and Peppers immediately shifts his eyes to the quarterback, while also exploding towards where Peppers’ expects the ball to arrive.
If Peppers had managed to beat the receiver to the ball, we’d likely be watching a pick-six video instead of still images. Regardless, the Wolverine displays a nice combination of aggressiveness and control by both securing the tackle (by getting his left arm in position to wrap up the receiver’s waist), and making a play on the ball (using his right arm to come over top the receiver).
Displaying picture perfect technique the entire play, Peppers finished the job off by timing his pass deflection just right, knocking the ball innocently to the turf. His next collegiate interception will be his first, but he still displayed consistent ability to lock up almost anyone and everyone who he lined up across from in 2015.
Now that the 2016 season is right around the corner, don’t expect much more (if any) love for the Wolverines here at Land-Grant Holy Land. But between Saturday’s at The Horseshoe, it’s going to be a lot of fun watching number five play football for the Maize and Blue. Until November 26, that is.