Jabrill Peppers for Heisman: More versatile than Woodson, more dangerous than Deion
Michigan standout has played 13 positions and is drawing some pretty big comparisons
"I was toast, absolute toast," Gordie Lockbaum said. "It was so much fun."
That's a 30-year-old memory from back when Lockbaum, coming out of tiny Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, was a national sensation. Lockbaum, mostly a running back and cornerback, did everything -- offense, defense, special teams. Sports Illustrated and People featured him in their pages.
Twice he finished in the top five in Heisman Trophy voting.
On the day in question, he was on the field for 137 plays against Army. Toast doesn't begin to describe it.
"It's going to sound weird," Lockbaum added. "That day I also had 23 tackles on defense."
Peppers is one of the few players in the past three decades who can relate. Perhaps the only one. Michigan's junior linebacker is more than a thinking man's Heisman darkhorse candidate halfway through the season.
Peppers is quite possibly the most unique college football player since Lockbaum. He is one of the few since the two-platoon era began more than 50 years ago to play extensively on both sides of the ball.
How extensively? He has been on the field for 331 snaps through six games, according to tracking by Michigan. That's more plays than Navy's offense has been on the field this season (319).
"If he has his sights set on playing two ways, you just gotta get in the best shape of your life," Lockbaum said. "There's nothing I can tell that he isn't already doing.
"If he's the character guy like I'm hearing, he's not going to take advice from some 50-year-old."
But Peppers is proving both that he is willing to listen and that it can be done.
Through six games, he has played 13 positions, according to Michigan officials. (That counts receiver and slot receiver as two different positions, but moving on ...)
Most of those 331 snaps are at his native outside linebacker (161), but 79 of them are on special teams, where Peppers both covers and returns kicks.
Throw in the media influence of his coach, and we have more than a phenomenon. Peppers has a chance to win the Stiff Arm as an ultimate Swiss Army Knife.
"Jim Thorpe," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said recently. "It just came to me. Only player I can think to compare Jabrill to."
Harbaugh hyperbole, perhaps, but seldom has Michigan's coach gushed so much about an individual player. Peppers is more versatile than Charles Woodson, more dangerous than Deion Sanders.
It took Harbaugh to fully realize Peppers' potential. The coach thinks nothing of lining up Peppers as a wildcat quarterback (eight times), halfback (three times) or free safety (15 times).
Against Rutgers, Peppers was the star of a 78-0 rout as he ran through, around and straight at the hapless Scarlet Knights ... simply because he could. Peppers ran for 74 yards, scored twice, returned two punts, made three tackles and had a quarterback hurry.
A 44-yard punt return for a touchdown would have been one of the highlights of the entire season had it not been called back.
"It's amazing to be on the same field with that guy," teammate Khalid Hill said. "How do you come off a spin move, see a guy about to hit you and just duck automatically? You can't teach that. It's a God-given talent."
Michigan linebacker Ben Gedeon says Peppers' "half speed is like full speed."
"If there's a better player in the country I don't know who it is," Harbaugh concluded. "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. My humble opinion is we are looking [at] a Heisman Trophy winner. "
Peppers came out of New Jersey as what some called perhaps the best prep player in the state's history. At 6-feet-1, 210 pounds, NFL talent evaluators are already arguing where he fits at the next level.
Twenty years ago, Woodson had similar Heisman advantages of the Michigan brand and Big Ten hype machine. That's taking nothing away from his skills, but there is a generation of Tennessee fans who still believe quarterback Peyton Manning was shunned that year.
But Lloyd Carr was no Harbaugh when it came to pubbing his players.
Harbaugh's help, "puts Jabrill in the conversation," Woodson said. "He would have been in the conversation because of his play. Because his coach validates it, everyone else takes notice."
This is a snapshot of football diversity: On the season, Peppers has 442 all-purpose yards (including 98 rushing yards), 37 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries.
Woodson has been a Hall of Fame mentor. The two speak and text. Obvious comparisons are made. Woodson won the Heisman in 1997 not only with his lockdown corner skill but with his punt return ability and a rudimentary offensive package.
Woodson had only 30 offensive touches in his career. Halfway through his junior season, Peppers has already run, caught or passed the ball 32 times.
"I had maybe three plays [devised for me]," Woodson said. "He has a real offensive package."
Why don't more schools take their best athlete and turn him loose?
"It ain't easy," Woodson said. "Not everybody can do it. Not everybody can retain the information needed to play multiple positions."
Lockbaum surmised: "Harbaugh might want to put him on the field 100 plays. But all the sudden [if] he gets hurt, you lose four positions."
Any discussion about whether Peppers can win the Heisman begins with the electorate itself. You must assume that the 870 voters are savvy enough to understand Peppers has played all those positions, that his stats at any one of those positions aren't going to be overwhelming.
You must assume they know who Lockbaum is or that those voters know football at all. A lot of them don't.
There was a time when Heisman votes were handed out like Pez. The most qualified evaluators of talent -- former winners, coaches and sports media -- comprise only a fraction of the vote.
"The key for Peppers is going to be whether he's given the opportunity to be an offensive player in key moments," said one Heisman voter who did not want to be identified. "It's easy to be up 50-0 and it's Rutgers and you put him in the wildcat. Will he be able to do it against Ohio State?"
In that sense, the same Heisman rules still apply. Michigan must remain in the national picture through November. It is in that month that Peppers needs to post his Heisman "moment," one that breaks the internet.
In the past 30 years, only six primarily defensive players have finished in the top five of Heisman voting. Even comparing Peppers to those others -- like Manti Te'o, Tyrann Mathieu, Steve Emtman and Brian Bosworth -- proves there is no other like him.
"He's got more potential than Woodson," said Chris Huston, editor in chief at Heisman.com. "It also helps him to play that type of position. You could throw away from Woodson. It's hard to scheme around Peppers."
Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke won't talk, which is a shame. Part of Peppers' success -- a lot of it -- is because of Oregon's current defensive coordinator. Peppers was arguably Hoke's best recruit at Michigan.
Peppers' production was prophesied when the star was brought in from Paramus Catholic in New Jersey. Hoke was fired after Peppers' freshman season.
Through an Oregon spokesman, Hoke declined comment. Too bad. Having recruited a possible Heisman Trophy finalist would look fairly good on his résumé right now.
"Charles Woodson was my hero growing up," Peppers told reporters. "He was the guy I tried to model my game after. I can still picture the image of him after that Ohio State game with the rose in his mouth. That's what made me want to wear the winged helmet."
Perhaps Peppers can win it because of the awareness created by Lockbaum, Woodson and others. His Heisman moments are already in pre-production. Harbaugh has seen to it.
Lockbaum wants to see it. Again.
"Approach it like you do when were in Pop Warner," he said of Peppers. "Have fun. Spend as much time in the film room as you can.
"I'm not surprised. I think there are more guys like us who can do this."
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