To say that Jabrill Peppers is a rare talent is an understatement. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the year was one of the best and most versatile athletes to ever don the winged helmet. Don Brown took advantage of that by deploying the talented youngster at the position where that versatility could be put to greatest use, VIPER. That hybrid outside linebacker position seemed on paper to be an ideal fit against spread teams, but not so much against downhill rushing teams. Many observers predicted Brown would take Peppers off the field in scenarios where the opposition tried to line up and blow Michigan off the ball. Those predictions were wrong, as Peppers held up well despite his undersized circumstances.
“The part with Jabrill that was so special is people say, ‘aw you got him in there against 22 personnel.’ Well he only had four minus yardage plays in 22 personnel against Michigan State,” said Brown. “So the guy had an uncanny ability to play against big people. Not everybody can do that. He could utilize his speed and savvy a little bit to get him around blocks and set the edge. You didn’t coach him like you’re coaching a standard Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray, or Noah Furbush type linebacker. You just didn’t do that. His would be more of a bounce off a guy to keep his leverage and he’d throw his whole body in there and bounce, where those guys you’re coaching to step with your power foot, use your hands, thumbs up, elbows in… all the typical technique stuff that you talk about.”
That’s because Peppers was an atypical athlete. With his playing days in Ann Arbor now behind him Brown is turning the page and the position. That doesn’t mean they’ll abandon the concept of playing a physical defensive back at the position. Moving forward that will continue to be part of the strategy, and one of the players likely to fill the role is sophomore Josh Metellus.
Coaches and fans alike caught glimpses of what Metellus brings to the table in his a trial by fire showing in the Orange Bowl.
“That was virtually unfair to him,” Brown said reflecting upon Metellus being pressed into action due to Peppers’ injury. “Borderline criminal.”
“The thing that was great about it (though) was he and Furbush both, they found out really minutes before the game. ‘Hey guys, you’re up, it is your turn, Jabrill (Peppers) is not playing.’ I thought they both handled themselves and atoned themselves pretty well in that scenario. I didn’t feel that the stage was too big for them, and as you watch the game kind of materialize they both settled in. Not that they were without their moments, but bottom line is that I did not think they looked out of place at all. In fact, I thought Metellus might have been our most improved player, along with Khaleke Hudson during that bowl preparation period.”
Metellus’ physicality was the trait he was most known for entering college, but since arriving in Ann Arbor he has also turned heads with his speed. He currently checks in as one of the fastest players on defense.
“He is an explosive kid,” said Michigan defensive backs coach Mike Zordich. “You watch him run… it is kind of like watching a young Delano run. It is just smooth, very explosive, gets out and gets going. It is very exciting for these young kids… it really is. It is an exciting time. We’ve just got to coach them up right and get them in the right spots.”
Thinks clicked faster for Metellus, which explains why he moved up the depth chart quicker than Hudson last year. However, by the time December hit the gap between the two had closed considerably.
“The learning curve… you can’t predict it,” said Brown. “Some guys that is easier for them than others. Khaleke, just as soon as he started getting comfortable as the year went on, you could see him playing faster. Playing more confident. Organization gives players a chance to be confident. Confidence gives players a chance for success. I think that is kind of where he is in his development. Now we’re at the point, ‘okay, you two guys, one day you (Khaleke) will be the VIPER and Josh will be the rover. The second day, you two flip because this like I said is an imperfect science. Who fits the best? we’re going to find out here in the next couple of months.”
Brown will also get a feel for how much of a match up game he will play with VIPERs and SAMs. Again, last year Peppers never came off the field. In 2017 odds are Brown will employ a more situational approach.
“I’m rotating Khaleke and Josh (at VIPER during the spring),” Brown explained. “One day one guy will be #1 and other day the other guy will. Jordan Glasgow will be there the whole time getting all the reps as the #2. Then I’ve got (Josh) Uche and Noah Furbush as the true SAMs. Uche can be a package guy as well because you know he runs 4.5 and he can rush the passer. Really we’re hoping for big strides from Noah, and then you’ll see it more situational. Big (opponents)… put Noah in the game. 11 personnel with the one tight end, three wide outs or even 10 personnel… which we don’t seem to get all that much… then play the VIPER. 21 personnel, 22 personnel, play the SAM linebacker. That’s really what we’re looking to do and at the same time we’re trying to develop depth at VIPER and depth at SAM.”
Stay tuned to the Michigan Insider for more of our spring preview, including word on the growth of Josh Uche, Elysee Mbem-Bosse, and the most improved player in the secondary in the hours to come.