As the Michigan football team took the field for its first spring practice session in Bradenton, Florida, on Monday, it wasn't the Wolverines quarterbacks, their new Nike jerseys or even their reconfigured offensive line that caught the attention of reporters in attendance.
Rather, what stood out most was one of the players who figures to be a sure thing for Michigan in 2016 after having already nearly done it all for the Wolverines in his freshman season.
Yet as the U-M defense took the practice field in the Sunshine State on Monday, there was Jabrill Peppers, not at his customary position of safety, but having seemingly moved up to linebacker instead. According to MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner, who was in attendance, Peppers' position switch didn't seem to be an experiment so much as it was the start of a potential transition to a new role.
"For most of the day, Michigan lined Peppers up in the box as a third linebacker," Baumgardner wrote. "He wasn't playing safety. He wasn't playing nickel. He was blitzing, supporting the run and covering tight ends and running backs underneath."
While Baumgardner did add that, at times, the Wolverines would bring in a bigger linebacker package that included Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray and Noah Furbush, the time Peppers spent playing with the group on the Michigan first-team defense is noteworthy.
After Tuesday's practice, new defensive coordinator Don Brown confirmed that Peppers likely wouldn't be playing just one position on defense in the coming year.
"We’ve got to give this guy a bunch of jobs," Brown said, per the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder. "He’s a dynamic athlete and we’ll keep him around the line of scrimmage and let him do a bunch of stuff. Whether it’s cover, whether in certain personnel groups, play linebacker, tight stuff."
Already a player to watch in the 2016 Heisman Trophy race, increased reps at linebacker would only improve his chances of winning college football's most storied award.
That could hold especially true in Brown's scheme, which saw blitzing linebackers become stars in his previous job as the defensive coordinator at Boston College. In 2013, Kevin Pierre-Louis recorded 108 tackles, 10.5 of which came for a loss, and six sacks before the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
The next season saw now-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Keyes tally 11.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks, while junior Matt Milano totaled 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks this past season. During Brown's time as the defensive coordinator at Connecticut, now-NFL outside linebacker Sio Moore totaled a combined 31.5 tackles for loss in 2011 and 2012.
It's not a coincidence that each of the players mentioned above possesses a similar body type to the 6'1", 208-pound Peppers, and in the cases of Keyes and Milano, both were originally recruited to play safety before converting to outside linebacker in Brown's scheme.
"Our SAM [linebacker]'s kind of a hybrid," Brown noted.
Except none of the players he's inserted at the position before have possessed the same type of talent as Peppers, a former 5-star prospect who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015. Primarily playing safety, the New Jersey native recorded 45 total tackles, 5.5 of which came for a loss, and 10 pass breakups.
That would have been impressive in and of itself and certainly would have boded well for a jump in production playing Sam linebacker in Brown's scheme—and in turn, his Heisman hopes. After all, while a player is yet to win the award based solely on his merits on the defensive side of the ball, the last defender to come close to winning the award was a linebacker in Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, who finished as the runner-up to 2012 winner Johnny Manziel.
That season, Te'o tallied 113 tackles, 5.5 of which came for a loss, 1.5 sacks and seven interceptions for the Fighting Irish. Based on his prowess as a safety and the numbers linebackers have put up in Brown's defenses in the past, it's not a stretch to say Peppers is more than capable of tallying such totals.
But while the defensive production will likely be there, what has already put Peppers on the preseason Heisman race's radar was what he also added on the offensive side of the ball, with head coach Jim Harbaugh opting to play him both ways at the midway point of his freshman season. In six games, Peppers tallied 151 total yards (72 rushing, 79 receiving) and two rushing touchdowns while lining up at receiver, running back and even Wildcat quarterback.
While it remains to be seen whether or not he will, Harbaugh has hinted at using Peppers on offense more in the future, going as far as to suggest his primary position could one day be running back, per Baumgardner. And although Peppers has since rejected the idea of being an offense-first player, reps on offense will still likely come—perhaps just enough to keep him in the Heisman conversation, a la Charles Woodson in 1997.
At the very least, Peppers should be the front-runner for the Paul Hornung Award, presented annually to college football's most versatile player. He may already have been that prior to the start of spring practice, considering with just one season under his belt, he's already played safety, cornerback, receiver, running back, quarterback, punt returner and kick returner in his college career.
It now appears that we can add linebacker to that list as the Michigan staff attempts to continue to get the most out of its most talented player.
His latest move could prove to be very beneficial for the Wolverines on the field—and lead to Peppers reaping the rewards for it on the awards circuit off of it.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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