Jabrill Peppers might be the best pure athlete in the college game. If football were an Olympic sport with a bunch of events stitched together, like a heptathlon, I’d put my money on him to win it. He is superb, and he has a prosperous career ahead of him.
He just shouldn’t be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
The Michigan defender is part of a five-candidate field that includes Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, and OU receiver Dede Westbrook. Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), Jackson will probably win the trophy.
But if he doesn’t, Peppers has as good a chance as anybody. As wonderful as he is, that’s The Media’s fault.
Peppers’ stats are nice, but they’re nowhere near Heisman-caliber and aren’t even amazing.
Peppers plays in all three phases for Michigan, but spent most of his time as Michigan’s strong-side linebacker, also playing on defense at nickel cornerback and safety and sometimes elsewhere.
In 12 games, he had 71 tackles. That was second on Michigan and 32nd in the Big Ten. He had 3.5 sacks (tied for 35th in his conference) and 15 tackles for loss (tied for fourth). He had one interception. The TFLs figure is by far the most impressive statistic from Peppers’ season, but 28 players throughout the country had more.
On offense, the picture is not remotely Heisman-like. Peppers got 27 carries, which he took for 167 yards, an average of 6.2. He scored three touchdowns on the ground. He caught two passes for three total yards, no scores. That’s 170 scrimmage yards, or what most Heisman candidates would consider one good game.
A defender shouldn’t need many yards in order to be considered a Heisman finalist, but 14 per game doesn’t fully supplement a defensive resume that isn’t all that overwhelming.
Peppers was a frequent punt returner and somewhat frequent kick returner, too. He ran back a total of 10 kickoffs for a 26-yard average and 21 punts for a 15-yard average and one touchdown. Those numbers are nice, though there’s not a lot of volume.
Run through historical lists of Heisman finalists, or general Heisman candidates in the years before “finalists” became a thing in the 1980s. You’ll find no offensive players who gained 170 yards from scrimmage. You’ll find no defensive players who had three sacks or one interception. You’ll find no stat line as small as Peppers’ in 2016. Nothing’s close.
Peppers is here because of nostalgic voters.
College football’s always had plenty of two-way players. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson has more return touchdowns, yards per play on offense, interceptions, and pass breakups than Peppers, not that Jackson should be a Heisman finalist either.
Peppers is this year’s most high-profile for two reasons. One is that he’s part of an elite defense and in one of the sport’s glamour programs. The other is that Charles Woodson went to Michigan and won the Heisman as a versatile, defense-first superstar in 1997.
I’m not sure if Woodson should’ve won the Heisman himself. But he had a better case than Peppers, mainly because he had seven interceptions and was correctly regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the country. He was elite at something, and he had more scrimmage yards through 11 games than Peppers had through 12.
Peppers-Woodson parallels and comparisons have been drawn for a while and got more common this year. Woodson is a mentor, it was reported in August. Peppers compares favorably, it was written in October. Peppers is more versatile than Woodson and more dangerous than Deion Sanders, CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd said that month.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Jim Harbaugh said in October, “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.”
Let’s step back.
The Heisman has 929 voters. Of them, 870 are media members. I like media members. I am one, as are all my colleagues and a lot of my best friends. But do you know the thing about media members? We like symmetry. We like when a glove seems to fit perfectly, as when a dynamic, five-star talent at Michigan plays all over the field and reminds us conceptually of a Michigan Heisman winner from the 1990s. It tingles emotionally.
And a lot of us internalized a while ago that Peppers was a Woodson 2.0, even if we didn’t pen articles that reinforced it.
We should think about this more critically. Peppers was not the best defensive player on his own team; that’s lockdown cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who’s a lot more like Woodson on defense than Peppers is. But Peppers isn’t just a Heisman finalist, he’s the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. That is silly, too.
The desire to appreciate Peppers is sincere.
I voted for him for SB Nation’s All-America team at linebacker, because it seemed wrong not to find space for such a terrific player on a team that includes a few dozen names. It was a flimsy rationale on my part.
I can’t defend the notion of Peppers as a top-five linebacker nationally, or as a top-five player at any position outside of punt returning, where Pitt’s Quadree Henderson has been a good deal better. Maybe I shouldn’t have voted for him at all. I felt bad about it while I was doing it, even though I felt somehow altruistic for including him.
Heisman voters get to vote for first, second, and third place. They’re supposed to pick the most outstanding player in the country. Peppers stands out, because he’s an athletic force. He also stands out for his versatility.
He just doesn’t stand out enough to be better than candidates such as Michigan’s Lewis, Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, Texas RB D’Onta Foreman, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, or Washington QB Jake Browning, who were each better at one thing than Peppers was at anything.