Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers, who captivated the country with his dynamism and versatility on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist this season, told Sports Illustrated on Tuesday he’s leaving Michigan to declare for the NFL draft. Peppers projects as a safety and return specialist in the NFL, where he’s expected to be a first-round pick.
Peppers earned the reputation as one of the elite players in college football in 2016 after switching from defensive back to a hybrid safety/linebacker. According to Michigan, Peppers lined up in 15 different positions on his 933 snaps this season, including quarterback, tailback and receiver. On defense he also logged time at nickelback, safety and cornerback. He also led the Big Ten in punt return yards and averaged four more yards per return than any other player in the league (minimum 10 returns).
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Peppers said. “I’m choosing between cementing my legacy as a college player and starting my pro legacy. It’s something you dream of when you were a kid. I was torn between the two.”
Peppers said he ultimately came to a decision this weekend while visiting his family in his native New Jersey. He informed Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh of his decision in a meeting in Harbaugh’s office on Monday. “He thanked me and told me it was a pleasure to coach me,” Peppers said. “I told him it was a pleasure to play for him. He molded me for the next level, that’s how he operates. He runs his program like an NFL team. He’s done more than enough to prepare me for this moment.”
ESPN’s Todd McShay has Peppers ranked as a Top 10 prospect in the entire draft. He’s considered one of the best defensive back prospects, but his versatility will trigger debates about which position he should play at the next level. “He was my favorite player to watch this year,” said a scout who tracked Peppers extensively. “There’s a lot of questions about what position he plays and how fast he is. But he’s a tough hombre who I’d want on my team.”
Best SI photos of Jabrill Peppers
Peppers acknowledges that the same versatility that made him such a unique college player could be used against him in the draft process. In 2015, playing primarily defensive back, he finished with 10 pass break ups. In 2016, as more of a linebacker, he finished with 15.5 tackles for loss. Peppers finished his career with one interception, which came in his final game against Ohio State.
Peppers said he welcomes questions from NFL franchises and understands how much teams will be investing him. He said his position switch last season inhibited him from working in pass coverage as much as he’d have liked to. He took “full responsibility” for not “putting forth my best coverage” on tape this season. He said that he flashed much better coverage skills during his redshirt freshman season when he worked primarily as a defensive back. He looks forward to refining that part of his game.
“All the questions will be answered,” he said. “And they’re good questions. I think I’ll be able to show that I can play one position well when I focus all my time and attention to it. I’m really excited to focus on my back pedal, flipping the hips and my coverage. I’m going to really hone in on that and iron out my weaknesses. I know my weaknesses and I know what I’m good at and need to improve on.”
Speed could be another question, which prompted a chuckle from Peppers in a phone interview on Tuesday. Peppers is 6-feet, 208 pounds and clocked a hand-timed sub 4.4 40-yard dash this summer. Harbaugh went on record this year predicting that Peppers will run faster than a 4.4 at the NFL Combine. “I’m a two-time state track champion,” he said, citing his days at Paramus Catholic in New Jersey. “I don’t think speed will be a question. I want to show the guys I do have great hips and can run with receivers.”
Along with thanking Harbaugh, Peppers went out of his way to thank former Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his staff for recruiting him there. He also mentioned the tough love of strength coach Kevin Tolbert, the guidance of Director of Athletic Counseling Greg Harden and the support of former high school coach and current Michigan assistant Chris Partridge. He also mentioned the support of his teammates, professors and Michigan fans. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “Not just because I love this place and the guys around me and the fans and the school. I feel like I was cheated out of the college experience getting hurt my freshman year. I really only played two years for the university that I love.”
Peppers said that declaring for the draft begins a process of proving himself all over again. He’s ready to attack the challenge.
“Now that it’s here, it’s surreal,” he said. “I’m not going to take the opportunity for granted. It’s time to work harder than I ever did and show folks what I’m made of.”