Only one defensive player has ever won the Heisman Trophy. That was Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997, who complemented his off-the-charts play in the secondary with punt returns and an occasional helping hand on offense.
Woodson did it as a junior, leading a Wolverines squad that went undefeated and secured a national championship.
If you are a believer in history repeating itself, you better hope you are a Michigan fan.Junior Jabrill Peppers, a Swiss Army knife of a player who bounces between safety and linebacker but also fields punts and makes appearances at running back and receiver, has as good a chance to join Woodson as anyone has since that memorable 1997 season.
It is impossible to deny the raw impact the New Jersey native has when he is in the game. He is always the best defensive player on the field, and is very often the best offensive threat as well. This year his impact when Michigan has the ball has been as more of a diversion, but his presence still excites fans and puts pressure on the defense when he lines up.
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His two carries for 24 yards have made up his offensive production through four games, but the attention he receives still has an impact. For instance, look at how the fake to him sets up De’Veon Smith’s 39-yard carry on Saturday against Penn State.
De'Veon Smith with a 39-yard carry after a fake jet sweep to Jabrill Peppers. pic.twitter.com/SsFznwttjT— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 24, 2016
But now let’s get to the two areas where the Peppers for Heisman talk really starts getting interesting: defense and special teams.
This a guy who can play and excel at any position on defense — and he has. After primarily being a safety last season, coach Jim Harbaugh moved him up to starting linebacker, where he has been a force to be reckoned with.
Peppers’ 9.5 tackles for loss are tied for the most in the nation, and he has also contributed with 33 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits and a forced fumble. According to CFB Film Room, a remarkable 47.8 percent of his tackles this year have come at or behind the line of scrimmage.
See ball. Hit ball. SZN pic.twitter.com/PAihgMKW2k— JP5 (@JabrillPeppers) September 18, 2016
Peppers has been an absolute baller on defense this year, but as Woodson proved, you need to contribute some yardage to really be considered for the award. And while Peppers' yards from scrimmage are nothing to write home about, he still leads the team in all-purpose yards by a margin of 57 over Smith.
How is that possible? He has been playing out of his mind in the return game.
The junior is averaging 56.8 punt return yards per game, a number that leads the nation by a gigantic margin. That was certainly aided by his performances the last two weeks, which included a 54-yard touchdown against Colorado and a 53-yarder in the first quarter on Saturday.
JABRILL PEPPERS *ALMOST* DID IT AGAIN! pic.twitter.com/QLzEbFs9qY— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 24, 2016
He hasn’t been quite as huge in the kickoff return game, only taking back two kicks, but he returned those two for an average of 40.5 yards.Being a defensive player puts a giant boulder on the back of any player as he tries to climb to the top of the Heisman mountain, but Peppers' profile is so similar to Woodson that it almost seems like destiny.
He will likely require an expanded role in the offense to have a real shot, but it’s pretty reasonable to think that will be coming as Michigan moves on from its very light early schedule into the more impactful Big Ten games.
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Last season, Peppers did not have a single yard from scrimmage in the first six games, as Michigan waited until its showdown with Michigan State to set him loose. That plan could be in place again next week, as the Wolverines could pull out all the stops to win a marquee game at home against No. 8 Wisconsin.
Regardless, Peppers is a special player who makes Michigan so much better in whatever facet of the game he is called upon. If the Wolverines keep looking so impressive and Peppers keeps dominating, Ann Arbor might be partying like it’s 1997.