Incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers is the biggest recruit Michigan has landed in quite some time, and thanks to his timing at the (current) apex of the Internet Age, he comes to Ann Arbor with more hoopla and higher expectations than perhaps any player in Wolverines history.
The nebulousness of his position has only increased his mystique. Is he a cornerback? Is he a safety? Is he a running back or a wide receiver instead? Where will he line up as a freshman (and beyond)?
Head coach Brady Hoke gave a little bit of insight—if that's what you want to call it—in an interview with Campus Insiders Friday, saying that Peppers will begin his career as a nickel cornerback. But when asked if Peppers could also see the field on offense, Hoke's poker face betrayed him and gave way to a coy sort of smile.
"We'll see...," he told Bonnie Bernstein of Campus Insiders with a sheepish grin on his face.
Here. Check it out for yourself:
Peppers was the No. 3 overall player on the 247Sports Composite, slotting in behind LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Because he can play both ways, he has often been likened to former Michigan great Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1997 and went on to become a seven-time All-Pro and future first-ballot Hall of Famer in the NFL.
But how often should Peppers be used on offense as a true freshman next season? Should it be in a steady capacity, or should he only be featured in select packages as he focuses more on playing defense?
The safe approach would probably be the latter.
Cornerback is a difficult position to master, despite what Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida), Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) and Brandon Facyson (also Virginia Tech) did as true freshmen in 2013. It is hard to reach one's potential at that spot without one's full, undivided attention.
Even Peppers himself, who is noted for charisma bordering on arrogance, spoke humbly about his freshman expectations and the learning curve before him in his most recent blog post for USA Today:
I just want to be as prepared as possible going into my freshman year because I know a lot will be expected from me. I've always had that, but I always say, "To whom much is given much is required."
I'm not going into Michigan thinking about expectations or worrying about doing certain things to live up to expectations. I know there's a huge transition from high school to college and I'm just going in focusing on learning the defensive schemes. Once you understand the schemes and the plays you can just play without worrying about making a mistake.
Peppers can learn large chunks of the defensive and offensive schemes in time for his freshman season, but it is absurd to think that he can master either while studying both. And mastery of the defense as soon as possible is the best thing that Peppers can do for himself, his career and the next three-to-four years of Michigan football.
So while it may be tempting to put Peppers on offense as often as possible next season—especially since the defense (and the secondary in particular) is the stronger part of the team—doing so would run the risk of stunting his development in the secondary. And like Woodson, that is ultimately where his future is going to lie.
Which isn't to say he shouldn't see the field at all on offense in 2014. He should. When the Wolverines are looking for a spark plug, Peppers should be it. There are things he can do on the outside, in the slot and—as Hoke intimated Doug Nussmeier is lobbying for—out of the backfield of which nobody else on the team is capable.
But those reps should be limited to things that take advantage of his athleticism. They should be the same type of reps Patrick Peterson took on offense with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.
Peppers cannot waste time in practice learning the intricacies of pass-blocking out of the backfield or run-blocking on the outside and in the slot. Those are things that all freshmen struggle to pick up, even when they are dedicating a full course load to do so.
He will get his hands on the ball on offense a couple of times per game, as well he should, but don't expect Peppers to displace Derrick Green or consistently catch passes from Devin Gardner. He will be more of an offensive wild card than an offensive king or queen.
But with three defensive positions—nickelback, outside cornerback and safety—to potentially learn next season, it is asking a little too much of a true freshman to add more than a couple of offensive packages to his repertoire. Even if that freshman is Peppers.
And even if Peppers is Woodson reincarnate.