There is so much to love about Jabrill Peppers. The Michigan star’s official position is linebacker but that label is reductive. He does it all and does it all well.
In the Wolverines’ 32-23 victory over Michigan State on Saturday, Peppers played 10 positions, recorded seven tackles (two of those for a loss), ran for a touchdown, and returned a fumble for two points after a botched conversion attempt. He did it with swagger, back-flipping his way forward in the Heisman Trophy race.
He is tied with DeShaun Watson at 9-2 odds to win the award, according to Bovada. Lamar Jackson, at 1-3, is the heavy favorite. It will take spectacular performances against Ohio State and in the Big Ten Championship for Peppers to close the gulf, regarding merit, should Jackson stay healthy and productive. An invite to New York City seems plausible, perhaps even inevitable, based on media infatuation. He may not have to produce another highlight.
Because Peppers the player, for all his attractiveness, is not as alluring as The Idea of Peppers.
That’s not a criticism of his play. He is an imposing defensive weapon, a foil to game-plan around. His dynamic punt returns are spellbinding. He’s averaging over eight yards per carry and when asked, is an unstoppable read-option quarterback.
Those are definable attributes. But Peppers represents more. He represents the rebirth of Michigan football under Jim Harbaugh, the embodiment of a long-dormant national fan base having a reason to beat its chest. He represents potential, which has seemingly become as important as accomplishments.
He gets credit for doing things he hasn’t done but probably will or could do if given the opportunity. He gets credit for being one of the best players in the country when he may not be the best player on Michigan’s defense. He has zero interceptions in his collegiate career nor has he been the deciding factor in a signature Wolverines victory, yet there’s the consensus that is coming.
Part of that is due to Michigan’s schedule, which has been full of cream puffs and required exactly one trip outside of the state (Rutgers). Part of that is just wanting Peppers to happen and refusing to back off until it does.
Sounds like another Michigan Man whose accomplishments in Ann Arbor have only just begun to match his cult of personality.
Peppers’ university boasts the only defensive player ever to win the Heisman. Only a person with either a short memory or willful ignorance would suggest he’s been anything close to 1997 Charles Woodson. Woodson single-handedly took away half the field, made seven interceptions, scored three offensive touchdowns and had a magical punt return score against Ohio State.
Peppers in no way dominates like Ndamukong Suh did at Nebraska when the wrecking ball finished second in the Heisman voting. Suh was an interior lineman and fought a losing battle for sexy highlights. Peppers does not have that problem.
Having said all that, this relentless push to have Peppers in New York City, to perhaps even win college football’s most prestigious award does not ignite the green-and-white-hot hatred it should in my soul.
And that’s because identifying the nation’s best college football player has always been more of an art than science. Although partially driven by numbers, it’s retained a fairytale or storybook-like quality. A cynic would say that’s cheesy and outdated. But college football is about pageantry and tradition, about writers like Grantland Rice making gods out of men, about abilities that enrapture a nation.
Dammit of the idea of Jabrill Peppers, Heisman winner, doesn’t check all three of those boxes. He plays for the right school covered the right way and has a story that resonates on a poetic level.
He can do it all. He’s a throwback to a time when a team’s best player excelled in all three phases of the game.
Jabrill Peppers has Heisman-like attributes. The idea of him embodies the award.