For Brady Hoke, the scenario entering the 2014 season is pretty simple: Win, or else.
The “or else” requires no further elaboration. The upcoming campaign will dictate his coaching future one way or another, whether at Michigan or elsewhere.
Pressure has started to build—fair or not—despite the university’s unwavering public support for its current head coach. He needs a successful season, or a familiar process will pitch a tent in Ann Arbor and likely be his undoing.
It’s for that reason that Hoke should count on incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers however he can, whenever he can, at whatever position(s) he believes he can handle from Day 1. Take those classic freshman protocols and abandon them entirely.
This is not your typical freshman, and more importantly, this is also not your typical situation.
Peppers, the No. 3 overall player in the Class of 2014, according to 247Sports' Composite rankings, is one of the most explosive high school players to emerge in the past five years. He projects as an elite cornerback, not a label many high school corners acquire before playing their first collegiate game.
At 6'0" and more than 200 pounds, he already has an NFL body. He also has elite speed, something that was on display as he won another New Jersey Non-Public A state track title in the 100-meter dash.
His time of 10.52 seconds was nearly a half-second better than Minkah Fitzpatrick, an Alabama commit and the nation’s No. 32-ranked incoming recruit, according to 247Sports' Composite rankings.
He is, quite simply, a physical specimen.
“Peppers is one of the most dynamic football players I have seen at the high school level,” 247Sports national recruiting director JC Shurburtt told Bleacher Report.
“He was special on defense and with the ball in his hands. There probably hasn't been a high school player I've seen with that type of versatility and skill set since Joe McKnight in the 2007 class."
The buzz is real. It’s prompted a flurry of questions regarding how Hoke will use Peppers out of the gate. Such talk will only continue as we inch toward conference media days.
Speaking with Bonnie Bernstein of Campus Insiders, Hoke offered the following on whether Peppers could assume a Charles Woodson-like role:
Jabrill is a guy that obviously we think is a very good football player. Will he get the ball in his hands, not just play defense? Maybe. We’ll see how things go. We’ll see. Believe me, I’ve got a new offensive coordinator who wants him to play tailback. We’ll see. We’ll go through it pretty well with him.
That coordinator is Doug Nussmeier. Nussmeier was paid handsomely to leave Alabama this offseason, and Hoke hopes he can revive an offense that struggled mightily—especially along the offensive line—in 2013.
Although Devin Gardner had his struggles at quarterback, particularly with turnovers, he didn’t have much help when it came to protection, and the running game didn’t do him any favors.
Such issues were evident while assessing the woeful numbers from a season ago.
|Rushing Yards Per Game||125.69 Yards||103rd|
|Rushing Yards Per Game (Conference)||99.00 Yards||114th|
|Total Rushing Yards||1,634 Yards||102nd|
|Yards Per Carry||3.28 Yards||115th|
|Yards Per Carry (Conference)||2.51 Yards||121st|
|Sack Yardage||270 Yards||120th|
Despite the carnage, there’s good news coming. (There’s also a bit of bad.)
The bad news is that the team’s top offensive lineman, Taylor Lewan, is off to the NFL. As one might expect, the issue didn’t suddenly resolve itself this spring without its most proven commodity. The offensive line struggled without Lewan, particularly in the team’s spring game, and it remains a work in progress.
The good news is it really can’t get much worse than it was a season ago. Beyond the obvious, the other actual bit of good news is that Derrick Green—the prized running back recruit from the 2013 class—has cut weight and looked the part this offseason.
And then there’s Peppers and the spark he could provide.
His role has yet to be defined, but it has gained some clarity. Hoke announced that Peppers will likely start at nickelback, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.
Keep in mind this could change. Peppers could turn heads in fall camp and acquire a more prominent role in the secondary. Included in this role could be some touches on special teams, and that’s where things could get interesting for the freshman.
"We'll probably have him return some kicks and we'll probably have him do some kickoff returns—just see how capable he is," Hoke told Brendan F. Quinn of MLive.com. "We think (he is) very capable."
He is, and he will be. And it likely won’t take long.
While corner feels like his permanent landing spot, few can do the things he can with the football in his hands. This play from a high school scrimmage last season served as a reminder of the sheer absurdity he’s capable of:
"I think Peppers absolutely can play both sides,” Shurburtt added in regard to his potential. “In fact, I am not sure how wise Michigan would be if the Wolverines did not attempt to get the ball in his hands at least a few times per game. He's just such an explosive player."
It may not be the more deliberate handoffs. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Those honors should go to Green or De’Veon Smith, another promising young back who, with Green, will likely see the bulk of the traditional carries.
But given the struggles of the running game, one would only assume that Peppers will be used in unique ways. He has to be. His presence alone could alter how defenses approach this team, which is an enormous advantage for a unit in desperate need of an edge.
While it’s presumptuous to assume that Peppers will come in and immediately be Percy Harvin—although that won’t stop usage comparisons given the head coach—the upside is too great to deny him for long.
He’s a game-changer—along with tight end Devin Funchess—who will keep opposing coordinators’ coffee makers trickling well after dinner. Not because of what they’ll do on their 15-to-20 touches, but because of what they can do on that one screen pass or option, that one unassuming play, that a team wasn't ready for.
For Brady Hoke, a coach teetering toward the place no coach wants to go, no scenario should be disregarded. You can’t possibly put all your hopes on one individual player—especially a non-quarterback who has yet to participate in his first collegiate practice—but the potential is too boundless to ignore. Counting on him feels appropriate.
It isn't normal to set these kinds of expectations for a player with a blank canvas, but again, Peppers requires a different protocol entirely. With desperation and necessity blending together as a critical season approaches, no avenue should go unexplored.