CHICAGO — The most mentioned Michigan football player at the Big Ten media day wasn’t in the building. He probably wasn’t even in the state of Illinois.
But none of Michigan’s representatives could evade the question: How good is Jabrill Peppers?
UM coach Brady Hoke was hesitant to publicly set a ceiling for the freshman Monday at the Hilton Chicago. His new teammates soft-pedaled their statements about Peppers, insisting that he was no different than the 15 other freshmen who joined the Wolverines this calendar year.
“All the freshmen have really stood out,” linebacker Jake Ryan said. “Everyone has a different character and everyone has been doing their jobs. [Jabrill] is a good player. He’s very athletic and he brings energy. But I think there’s a lot of freshmen that do that, as well, and it can’t just be one guy. It’s got to be all of them.”
Ryan may have been prescribing to Bo Schembechler’s belief in “the team, the team, the team,” yet there’s little to deny that Peppers is Michigan’s most heralded incoming freshman this season.
While Hoke reiterated that Peppers will begin the 2014 season at the nickel position, even he was hesitant to heap praise on the freshman.
“Let's anoint him when he does something, right?” Hoke quipped while on the podium. “I mean, let's see what he can do.
“To say he’s going to do this and be that, I don’t think that’s fair. Am I going to be out front with him and shield him from the pressure he could put on himself? No question. He’s not going to talk to the media a lot. I can promise that.”
Ranked as the top incoming cornerback in the country by recruiting services in 2013, the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Peppers had 64 tackles, four interceptions, and 12 passes defended on defense, and had 1,381 all-purpose yards (658 rushing, 448 receiving) with 19 touchdowns in his senior year at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic.
He also became one of the nation’s more visible recruits. Peppers kept a blog on USAToday.com that he updated for more than a year, in which he touched on his budding rap career, wrote about his efforts to recruit other marquee football players to Michigan, and attempted to debunk any comparisons to Michigan’s 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.
“I just want to be as prepared as possible going into my freshman year because I know a lot will be expected from me,” Peppers wrote in June. “I've always had that, but I always say, ‘To whom much is given much is required.’
“I'm not going into Michigan thinking about expectations or worrying about doing certain things to live up to expectations. I know there's a huge transition from high school to college and I'm just going in focusing on learning the defensive schemes.”
Peppers caused a bit of a furor towards the end of the 2013 season. Six months after he verbally committed to Michigan, Peppers released a statement in November that he was considering taking official visits to other schools, on the basis that Hoke’s job status was up in the air. Peppers reaffirmed his UM commitment after a December visit to Ann Arbor.
He has more than 29,000 followers on Twitter, and last week posted a before-and-after photo montage of the four-week change in his physique through his Instagram account.
“That’s not my thing,” Ryan said, chuckling. “I’ll stick with the golfing pictures and stuff like that. It’s his Twitter, and he’ll do what he wants.”
But Ryan insists that among the ranks, Peppers isn’t making waves.
“He’s keeping to himself, he’s going through the workouts, going through everything else like every other guy,” Ryan said.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, however, was more effusive when discussing Peppers.
“Jabrill Peppers, he’s as advertised,” Gardner said. “As far as being a competitor and wanting to get better, and being a great athlete, he’s up there with the best I’ve ever seen.
“He brings a fire and an intensity to our team that we definitely need.”