NFL teams want to know what to do with Jabrill Peppers. As a dazzling, do-everything college superstar, the Michigan safety/linebacker/running back/return man is a conundrum -- grist for the pre-draft season of overthinking.
But the best advice for what to do with Peppers might be the simplest.
"Put on the Colorado film," Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said.
And so you do.
A minute and 48 seconds in, No. 5 in blue is covering No. 5 in white: Colorado tight end George Frazier, who starts out wide to the left but motions into the slot. Peppers tracks him, sliding left, with his football brain calculating the possibilities from 7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
"Tremendous football IQ," Brown said of Peppers. "So savvy. He can learn concepts. He'll be in the meeting room, and he'll put his hand up: 'Hey, coach, I've got two questions.' And bang-bang, it translates to the field."
The ball is snapped, and Frazier heads right to take out Michigan middle linebacker Ben Gedeon, while Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay takes the pitch from the quarterback's left side. Peppers sees it all in a blink. Lindsay is doomed. Before Lindsay can survey the field in front of him, Peppers is speeding toward him like a laser beam, squaring his shoulders and making the kind of thunderous form tackle that spins coaches into hyperbole.
"He's going to play man-to-man on No. 5, and No. 5 is going to crack the Mike, and he's going to not only get to the back, he's going to smash him," Brown said. "He's the best open-field tackler I've ever seen in my life."
Lindsay loses 2 yards on the play, which sets up second-and-12. Asked months later for his favorite play against Colorado, Peppers said this one -- with a caveat.
"I gave up a touchdown on the next play," he said. "So I guess that takes something away from that one."
Yes, Colorado is frisky on this mid-September afternoon. The Buffs lead the Wolverines 21-7 before the first quarter is over. Peppers has to do more. Fortunately, he can.
"He's everything," Brown said. "He can do anything he wants. Basically, I took my brightest guy and gave him a bunch of things to do, and he did them all, and he was great at them."
At the combine in February, ESPN asked decision-makers from a dozen teams about Peppers, and the answers all came with more questions: Is he a safety? Is he a box safety? At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, can he realistically be an NFL linebacker? Is he better on offense than on defense? How did this obviously brilliant playmaker get through his whole college career with only one interception?
"Great player, obviously, but you have to sit and think about what he is in your defense," one NFL general manager said. "He doesn't take the ball away, so can you play him at safety? He's not big enough to play linebacker. There are plenty of ways he can help you -- he's your punt returner right away -- but you have to sit and think about what you can do with him."
"Those are all valid questions," Peppers said. "The one interception thing, I didn't really have many opportunities this year. Last year, I dropped one, maybe two. One where I jumped the bubble in Minnesota, the other against Northwestern. And I could have had one at Utah, but I didn't get my head around fast enough. I think when I came back from my injury, I just didn't trust my technique enough. And no, I never really got a chance to showcase what I could do in the deep third, but I just take it for what it is. What I was asked to do was make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, and that's what I did."
In college, Peppers was the guy who could do everything. But as the draft approaches and teams try to figure out whether his overall talent merits a first-round pick, the question is whether he can do one thing well enough to be a star in the NFL. His draft stock might've been higher right now if Michigan had let him play safety all of the past season. But the Wolverines needed help at linebacker, and so Peppers played there instead and was named the Big Ten's linebacker of the year.
"I know this," Michigan special-teams coach Chris Partridge said. "Some team's going to take him, and after one day of minicamp, they will be one happy organization. Maybe they won't know exactly where to play him right away, but he's a guy you're happy he's on your team."
Just watch. We'll get to other games in a minute, but keep Colorado on for now. Less than two minutes after blowing up poor Lindsay in the backfield, Peppers lines up at wide receiver and picks up 17 yards on a sweep. He gives Lindsay a break in the second quarter and instead spends it harassing wideout Devin Ross, No. 2 in white. On a third-and-10 early in the second, Colorado throws a screen to Ross. Peppers is too fast for Jay MacIntyre's block and gets there in time to tackle Ross by his left hip. It's a 1-yard loss. The next play is a missed Colorado field goal.
"He's by no means a finished product, and there's going to be some concern about how much production he's going to give you as a deep-field player," ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL defensive back Louis Riddick said. "But his versatility is something I think a lot of teams are looking for. He can do just about everything. In terms of foot speed, hip flexibility, closing speed, he has no limitations. If I'm an NFL team, I'm playing him at safety, and I'm using him to make life miserable."
A minute into the second half, after Colorado has snagged the lead again at 28-24, Peppers catches a kickoff in his own end zone and returns it past midfield. Five minutes later, on second-and-10 with Michigan up 31-28, he is lined up 4 yards off the line of scrimmage but moving forward at the snap. Again ... box safety? Linebacker? Who cares? He spots the flaw in the protection, with the center looking the wrong way, and shoots the B-gap for a sack.
"I was playing the nickel there, and we were showing an 'apex' look," Peppers recalled about that play, which was his backup answer once he disqualified the first-quarter tackle from his list of favorites. "And I walked up, tried to simulate getting into the box, just kept walking until their lineman took his eyes off of me. Then I was just hoping the center didn't set my way, but he set to the right instead, and it was all clear for the sack."
Then, with 11:40 left and the Wolverines up by 10, Colorado has to punt, and guess who is back there waiting for it.
"The interception thing, come on. He's got good hands. The dude catches punts!" Brown said. "Are you kidding me? That's the hardest thing in the world to do."
This one is a low liner that Peppers snags at his own 47, and to him, the field looks like one of those placemat mazes kids solve while they wait for their macaroni and cheese at the diner. Slide right, zip forward, shimmy away from one diving tackler, shift your shoulders left and speed past two more. Tuck the ball high on your left side so No. 43 can't get to it while he wraps his arms around your waist, then keep your legs moving and run through the arm tackle while No. 43 falls on his back. Twenty-five yards to go and one more move to make. It comes at the 18, an Emmitt Smith-style, shoulder-shake juke that will haunt the nightmares of No. 30 in white, who tries one more time to wrap Peppers up at the 2 but can't. Touchdown. Cue the band. Hail to the conquering heroes.
"The more you give him, the more he wants," Partridge said. "That's why he's going to be successful."
Watch Peppers in the first quarter against Penn State. The ball is punted from the Nittany Lions' end zone, and it's a booming kick. Peppers has to scramble back to his own 40 to get his hands on it. He actually muffs it but scoops it back up, takes a beat to get his mental snapshot of the field-as-placemat-maze and takes off. No one touches him. He cuts sharply to his left to avoid a tackle at the Penn State 30, and that does him in, as he trips over his own feet and stumbles forward before finally falling 9 yards short of a touchdown.
"How many plays does Jabrill Peppers play in a game?" Partridge asked rhetorically. "110? 120? I remember about 12 years ago, somebody put together a Charles Woodson tape, and it was 'The Charles Woodson you don't see.' And the point was, yeah, you see all of his highlights, but here's a collection of plays no one really focuses on, and it's him doing things away from the ball or blocking or things that don't show up on the highlights. I want to do one for Jabrill, because it's the same idea. This is a guy who returns a punt 20 yards, and then he's running a 60-yard decoy 'go' route on the next play."
Partridge got to see it before the rest of us did. He was coaching at Paramus Catholic High School in 2012, when Peppers decided to transfer there from North Jersey rival Don Bosco. Peppers won New Jersey state titles at Bosco in each of his first two years but wanted a change. Guess which school won the next two state titles.
"I had no clue," Partridge said. "I knew we were getting a talented young man. I just didn't know how he'd fit into our team. We had 14 Division I players, I believe. We were good. He comes in with all this attention and fanfare. But day one, he shows up, and it's clear he's a team guy."
There was nothing Partridge could give Peppers that he didn't want to do. Peppers played quarterback, tailback, wide receiver, cornerback, safety and linebacker. He rushed the passer. He returned kicks, of course. One time, he played fullback -- yes, really.
"We got a fullback hurt, and we usually didn't run a lot of two-back stuff, but this game we wanted to use a fullback," Partridge said. "So I told them we were going to change the plan, and Jabrill put his hand up and said, 'Nah, coach. I got this.' So he's out there kicking out on power and blocking for the tailback. Just Jabrill being Jabrill."
Peppers' Michigan coaches marvel at his stamina. Brown said he offered to give Peppers breaks after he took four or five offensive snaps in a row in practice, and Peppers always turned him down. Partridge recalled a game at Michigan in which the Wolverines were "up by three touchdowns" late, and he told Peppers he could sit out kick coverage duties. Peppers went in anyway.
"See, to me, everything's a competition," Peppers said. "And if a team has a really good kick returner, you want to be out there to make sure they know you're better than that kick returner is."
His favorite thing to do on a football field?
"I like hitting," he said. "But scoring a touchdown is a close second."
His favorite NFL players of the past are Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, who are on the Mount Rushmore of safeties. His favorite current players are Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Jacksonville's A.J. Bouye, whom he discovered while watching him play for the Texans last season. He had never heard of Bouye but was impressed by what he saw and followed him the rest of the season.
"Then I heard he was undrafted, and I just liked that chip he played with on a very good, aggressive defense," Peppers said. "That tells you a lot about a guy, when you can see what's driving him."
That Peppers stamina? Hard work, he says.
"I just credit that to the conditioning, and that's something my coaches have put in me," he said. "It's just always been a big emphasis for me -- running, everything I need to do in terms of conditioning. I might have gotten winded a few times, but I never really got tired."
Watch him against Michigan State, a game he opened by running for a 3-yard touchdown as a Wildcat quarterback and ended by picking up a fumbled two-point attempt and running it back 88 yards. Early in the second quarter, on fourth-and-1 for the Spartans from the Wolverines' 43. Peppers is playing weakside linebacker, 3 yards off the line and on the offense's left side. The handoff is to Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes, No. 24, who is running to his right behind a fullback and a tight end. He needs 1 yard. Peppers tears through the gap between the center and left guard and around the fullback and brings Holmes down from behind with two hands around his waist.
"That play, he's a box linebacker, runs through the A-gap on fourth-and-short for minus yards," Brown said. "And everybody's, 'Aw, he's not big enough to do that.' He can do anything he wants to do."
Watch the Iowa game. Three minutes in, on third-and-11 for Iowa from its own 49, Peppers begins the play 10 yards off the line, one of two high safeties. He walks up into the box before the snap. Eyes in the backfield as Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard takes a deep drop, then as soon as Beathard breaks to run left, Peppers mirrors him. Beathard is not getting the corner.
"On that play, he's playing the back," Brown said. "He feels the QB rolling out to his right and has to add on to get him. Add on. I can coach a true linebacker to do that, and it's not getting done as efficiently as he does it."
You watch Peppers, and you see speed. You see instincts. You see -- lack of interceptions aside -- an innate ability and desire to make the kind of plays that change games. College games, yes, and until you see someone succeed in the NFL, you have to wonder. The NFL is unforgiving, and the draft's history is littered with college stars whose games didn't translate. But Peppers is not one for worrying.
"It's been a bit stressful, but who am I to complain when so many have done it before me?" he said of the pre-draft process. "Somebody takes a chance on me, I'm just going to give them everything I've got, and that's all I can do."
What kind of player will Jabrill Peppers be in the NFL?