Fresh off a 78-0 waxing of Rutgers, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh walked up to the lectern and promptly compared Jabrill Peppers, his junior safety-linebacker-cornerback-nickel-running back-wide receiver-quarterback-punt returner-kick returner, to Jim Thorpe, considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes to ever live.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Harbaugh said of Peppers, who had dominated all three phases of the game. “It’s the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen. In my humble opinion, I think we’re looking at a Heisman Trophy winner and candidate.”
Wait a second — doesn’t Harbaugh know this is the Year of Lamar Jackson? Isn’t he aware that Deshaun Watson still resides in the college ranks? Has he forgotten that Jake Browning has led the Washington Huskies to national prominence?
While Harbaugh is bullish on Peppers’s candidacy, Peppers is fifth in the voting in ESPN’s latest poll. But people have been left saucer-eyed by Peppers, and many know his name.
Here’s what needs to happen between now and the end of the season for the New Jersey native to win Michigan’s first Heisman in nearly two decades.
Overcome bias at QB/RB
A defensive player has placed in the top five in voting just 11 times in the past 45 years. Over that stretch, quarterbacks, for example, have cracked the list 115 times. Additionally, since the turn of the century, it’s become a quarterback’s award to lose, evidenced by the fact that 13 of the past 16 winners played that position.
Four “outsiders” — Manti Te’o in 2012, Charles Woodson in 1997, Hugh Green in 1980 and Rich Glover in 1972 — finished in the top three in voting. Mostly, though, defensive players are made to feel like novelty candidates rather than players seriously being considered in the running. Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh was unquestionably the most dominant, disruptive force in college football in 2009. He finished fourth in the voting, behind Colt McCoy, the same quarterback he tossed around like a Raggedy Ann doll in the Big 12 championship game the week before the ceremony. Tyrann Mathieu was the most electric player in college football in 2011 and the catalyst of a defensive-minded LSU team that fell in the national championship game. He finished fifth.
While it’s easy to pencil in Jackson as the winner — he’s on pace to break the FBS single-season record for total touchdowns — it’s worth remembering that neither Montee Ball nor Keenan Reynolds sniffed the award despite setting the NCAA record for career rushing touchdowns. Colt Brennan accounted for an NCAA-record 63 touchdowns in 2006, 23 more than any other player, and didn’t win. Should Louisville drop another game, history shows that it’ll be difficult for Jackson to secure the Heisman. There’s a reason why the award has only been given once to a player on a losing team.
As Anthony Bellino, a public-address voice for Michigan athletics, put it: “Numbers and team wins have typically determined the trophy.”
Browning and Watson figure to be Peppers’s stiffest competition — both are quarterbacks for top-five programs and haven’t missed time because of injury. San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey currently ranks fourth in ESPN’s voting, but he doesn’t play in a Power Five conference and his team has already lost, making his chances slim.
Compare favorably to the only other defensive Heisman winner, Charles Woodson
The only defensive player to win the Heisman, Woodson was a cornerback and punt returner who wasn’t heavily involved on the offensive end, logging just 30 touches over his career. Midway through his junior campaign, meanwhile, Peppers has a combined 38 passes, carries and receptions.
Peppers ranks second in the nation in punt-return yardage (249) and is a threat every time he touches the ball.
He leads the team in all-purpose yardage (73.4 yards per game), solo tackles (27) and tackles for loss (10). He ranks fifth on the team in rushing (110 yards, two touchdowns) and has caught a pass. In total, Peppers had played more combined snaps (331) as of last week than the entire offense of the Navy football team (319).
Woodson did rank second nationally in interceptions the year he won, and Peppers has yet to register an interception or a so-called Heisman moment. But Peppers is on pace to best Woodson in total tackles, punt-return average, punt-return touchdowns, punt-return yards and total touchdowns from scrimmage. He already has more sacks — and is used as a kick returner, which will help pad his numbers.
Woodson was certainly thrilling, but he also didn’t lead the country in any metric; Peppers is four yards short of the national lead in punt-return yardage and is unquestionably the most versatile player on any field. Peyton Manning, Woodson’s stiffest competition for the award in ’97, finished third that season in passing touchdowns, fourth in passing yards and outside the top 10 in passing efficiency. He didn’t give voters enough of a reason to bite at his numbers, and his team lost in September of that season, giving Woodson the edge.
Continue to produce and expand role on offense
Harbaugh recognizes that Peppers needs to see more action on the offensive side of the ball if he is to have a shot, which is why eight of Peppers’s 10 carries, 83 of his 107 rushing yards and both of his rushing touchdowns this season have come in the past two games. His lone reception came in the team’s most recent win, too.
“I had maybe three plays [devised for me],” Woodson told CBS Sports. “He has a real offensive package.”
With an inherent ability to affect games with his athleticism, Peppers is serviceable for an offense that ranks outside the top 25 in yards per play. Harbaugh’s integration of Peppers on the offensive end isn’t a coincidence, and it should help the team continue to win.
Showcase his talents in the team’s remaining marquee regular season matchups: at Michigan State (Saturday), at Iowa (Nov. 12) and, especially, at Ohio State (Nov. 26)
The Iowa game will be his easiest opportunity to rack up numbers, seeing as the Hawkeyes tout the conference’s worst punt-return defense, allowing 14.3 yards per return. Iowa also struggles to protect its quarterback, ranking 109th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate.
Fourteen Heisman winners have played on undefeated teams, and with Peppers contributing to an offense and defense ranked in the top three in scoring, there could be a 15th on the way.