March 7, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
INDIANAPOLIS -- Jabrill Peppers looked down at the artificial turf, and the two-time New Jersey state sprints champion prepared to run the 40-yard dash for a time that would help determine just how high he goes in next month's NFL Draft.
There were no starting blocks to line up in as he did before winning those 100- and 200-meter titles for Paramus Catholic, but he bent down and dug in the fingers on both hands at the starting line, bringing his left arm to his side before taking off down the improvised track lane in the middle of Lucas Oil Stadium.
He puffed out bursts of air from his lungs as he gained full speed, a grimace crossing his face as Peppers pushed for everything he had to give. He crossed the finish line in 4.47 seconds on his first attempt and 4.46 on his second. When he glanced up at the board where times were posted seconds after the final effort, Peppers quickly nodded his head downward and came up with his eyes ablaze with displeasure.
The NFL Network commentators gushed about what a "competitor" Peppers was, and how "relentless" he was in attacking the physical tests at the NFL scouting combine. What they didn't seem to know was that Peppers had set a personal goal for himself on Saturday (March 4), the day before running, of breaking 4.45 seconds. He'd missed that goal by two one-hundredths of a second, and was seething over falling short of his perfect time.
Still, he had the fastest time of any linebacker, blowing away most, and only four safeties would run a faster time the next day, with none getting under 4.40 seconds. Peppers had passed the speed test just fine.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) March 6, 2017
He also ranked as a standout with a broad jump of 128 inches (10 feet, eight inches) and vertical jump of 35.5 inches. He bench pressed 225 pounds 19 times.
Peppers, measured at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds at the combine, played virtually everywhere on the football field for Michigan with the exception of the offensive line, but now feels pretty certain about what his best position in the NFL will be.
"What do I look like?" Peppers asked with a smile. "I'm a safety, free or strong. I'm very fast. I'm stronger than the typical DB, seeing as I played linebacker in the Big Ten at 200 pounds."
Peppers encountered a problem at last weekend's combine when those in charge determined he should go through the testing procedures with linebackers because that was his primary position for the Wolverines in 2016.
"I was informed that since I was listed as a linebacker in college that I had to only work out with the linebackers," Peppers said. "They were trying to make me do only the linebacker stuff, and so I asked if there was somehow, someway I could do the DB stuff because that's what I was doing in the off-season and leading up to the combine.
"I told my agents that, and they made it happen. They said the only way I could do it is if I did both. I said, 'That's easy. That's no problem at all.' "
The three-way player had no trouble becoming a two-day workout player.
Peppers played 15 different positions -- five each on defense, offense and special teams -- and took 933 snaps in 12 games for 77.8 snaps per game.
Doing double-duty or triple-duty in his case was something he handled on a daily basis.
Peppers was one of several Wolverines to work out after the Orange Bowl with the EXOS coaching and training staff at their SKLZ Headquarters in San Diego.
"I didn't have the ability to just work on my craft before," said Peppers. "Now, I do."
His eyes twinkled and he smiled while saying that, letting you know how much pleasure he was getting out of focusing on nothing but football and emphasizing sharpening his defensive back skills.
I asked where he'd made the most significant improvement during the last two months.
"My defensive back technique," said Peppers. "I hardly worked on it for the season when I was asked to play linebacker. I couldn't participate in one-on-one (drills) and seven-on-seven (scrimmages) as much as I wanted. But it's all part of the process, and I'm a winner. That's what my team needed me to do, and so that's what I did.
"Rely on your technique; don't rely on your athleticism. It's about playing your technique and trusting your technique. I think that was one of my biggest flaws, but I'm cleaning that up. It's all coming together for me ... I worked with Matt Clark, the DB coach, and Roy Holmes and Brent Callaway. They did a fantastic job in getting me ready for this combine."
Clark, a former NFL cornerback, worked on honing Peppers' defensive back skills. Holmes and Callaway are strength and speed coaches at EXOS, and also prepared Peppers for the myriad of questions, tests and interview topics he'd be poked and prodded with in Indianapolis.
The Wolverines received the highest number of combine invitations, 14, among the 330 issued. Peppers credited Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who once led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, for impacting him and the teammates participating with him in Indianapolis.
"He definitely did a great job of preparing us," said Peppers, "and there was no one better to fill the void when Coach (Brady) Hoke left. He made it business-like, and let us know what we could expect at the next level, and I'm more than grateful for that."
Despite focusing on where he believes his future lies in the secondary, Peppers noted that teams talked to him about playing running back or slot receiver.
"A couple of teams did ask me about that," said Peppers, who wouldn't name those teams. "(They are) telling me I'm very dynamic with the ball in my hands."
He averaged 6.2 yards per carry this season and ended up fifth on the team with 161 yards rushing and three touchdowns. That's a small sample size, but Peppers knows what to do as a running back. He rushed for 3,059 yards and 43 touchdowns for Paramus Catholic and Don Bosco Preparatory.
Peppers exhibited both toughness and elusiveness to go with his superb speed and instincts when he did carry the ball for the Wolverines. And it's a given that he'll return punts and or kickoffs in the NFL because he was a college game-breaker in those areas.
Coaches and personnel members wanted to know where Peppers saw himself playing, and more.
"They asked about my strong suits and my weaknesses," said Peppers. "One of my biggest things is that I'm very smart. I only need to see things a couple times in order to have it down pat."
Peppers has a photographic memory, and that's what enabled him to play so many positions so proficiently. Harbaugh said Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, whom he signed and developed at Stanford, is the only other player he's coached who carried out assignments correctly the very first time they were given.
"I told them my natural position is definitely defensive back," Peppers continued. "I had to fill a void this year (at linebacker) and do what's best for the team, and if I had it to do over again, I would. I didn't think it would hurt me. I had the mindset that whatever I do, I do it to the best of my ability. I try to make plays when I can. I think that's what I did, and that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Peppers tied for the team lead with 15.5 tackles for lost yardage and led with eight quarterback hurries. He was third with 70 total tackles and also had 3.5 sacks.
However, his linebacker days are done. Peppers said teams asked him to send videotape of him playing cornerback and safety, and he's stressed that he's very capable of playing press coverage.
Harbaugh was asked about Peppers' best NFL position prior to last season.
"Ultimately, probably (nickelback) is his best position," he said. "... Nickel is probably the one he'll play as a pro football player, because he's tough. He'll tackle."
The speculation likely will continue until Peppers, projected as a first-round pick, lines up somewhere on the field a rookie.
"Everyone's going to have an opinion on it," Peppers said, "but the only one I care about is they guys who are going to draft me. The draft analysts, they do whatever they're going to do, but I know what kind of player I am, and these scouts know as well.
"The bottom line is that I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer, and I intend to run fast, and I intend to run smooth doing whatever I'm asked to do."
One thing's for certain about the player who elicited about as many questions about his future as any player at the combine.
"They can question whatever they want to question," said Peppers, "but they can't question my work ethic."
They also can't question his speed any more.
However, his coach at Michigan didn't need a stopwatch to determine that.
"He's explosive as an athlete," said Harbaugh. "You see it in the field, you understand it whether he's making a tackle or whether he's got the football in his hand or whether he's closing ground, whether he's covering. When he runs by you, you feel it. You feel the wind, you feel the air moving, you feel the force into the ground.
"It's dart-like, it's explosive."