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Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers handles stardom with mature, team-first mindset

All Photos: Andy Shippy

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers has a place in the 2016 Heisman race, but the redshirt sophomore athlete prefers not to refer to himself in that light.

The 6-foot-1, 205 -pounder is the most versatile player in college football, destined to be a first-round NFL draft pick. But the Wolverines star — who has played at least 10 or 11 positions in two years — prefers not to discuss his draft status.

He’ll be eligible to go pro this spring, but he’s not too worried about whatever follows his collegiate career. He’d rather focus on teammates who have made success possible at the midway point of the season. Michigan is 6-0, ranked No. 3 in the nation and has the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation.

Michigan is, and has been all year, much more than Jabrill, he mentioned. It’s been a “tough” A-minus level Jourdan Lewis, who has been “shut-down” since returning from injury against Penn State. It’s been Channing Stribling, manning the other corner, who’s also helped “open up” things for Peppers and the rest. It’s been “outstanding” linebackers such as Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray.

Everyone.

Roll calls. They’re common at Michigan. The next guy makes things possible for the next guy.

With that said, Peppers’ name can be found scattered throughout stat columns. Defense. Offense. Special teams. One holding penalty vs. Rutgers separates him from the national lead in punt-return touchdowns. He’s already bagged one — No. 2 is surely around the corner.

Peppers must be approaching his peak, right?

“Absolutely not. I don’t think I’ve been playing as well as people have been saying I’m playing,” said Peppers, who has 38 tackles and a team-high 10 for a loss. “If I had to give myself a grade, I’d probably say ‘C-‘ — you know.. but… definitely not… definitely not where I want to be… anywhere (near) the team needs me to be.

“But hey, that’s why you play this game. You have six more weeks to keep getting better and better at what you do…”

He’s his own worst critic — which is often the case for ultra-competitive, perfectionist types such as Peppers. At times, he’s appeared nearly flawless to media and fans. Even Harbaugh has found it difficult to resist saying “Jabrill is really good at football.”

He really is that good. But he’s made mistakes. And he’ll talk about the downs as much as he’ll talk about his highlight plays.

“Just blown assignments that I missed. You know — you guys can’t tell from watching the game, but when we get in the film room, I know when I mess up,” Peppers said. “I try to solve all my mistakes with effort and aggression — that definitely helps a lot.”

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Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers combines ultimate athleticism with humility. It’s a rare combination, often a sign of true greatness. Photo: Andy Shippy

Shown through intense blitzing, as a linebacker, from the edge. Demonstrated by the aggressive stops and slams in the backfield. Several disrupted plays. The returns. Peppers makes teams adjust on the fly. He’s been used to such treatment since high school.

“But it still doesn’t take away from the fact that I make mistakes, though,” Peppers continued with his self-assessment. “That’s just me, though. I’m hard on myself. I’ve always been that way. Our coaches are hard on me. My teammates are hard on me. So, you know, it is what it is — we’ve all got to play better, we all know.”

While at Paramus Catholic, Peppers was essentially hitched to destiny. At every turn and every angle, someone was there telling Peppers that he’d become a megastar at Michigan. Charles Woodson-like. Peppers used to embrace that discussion, but today, he’s pumped the brakes a little bit. He’s taking more time to understand the now, rather than getting caught up with predictions about tomorrow.

As a freshman, he spent too much time looking ahead. He had no problem admitting that he’s experienced healthy growth and gained a new understanding of not only his individual status, but the entirety of the program.

In other words, his perspective has graduated.

“Now, I’m not taking anything for granted,” Peppers said. “It could all be over tomorrow, the next game… that’s just my approach, man. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the guys around you and just keep playing the best ball you can play.”

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