April 10, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Khaleke Hudson is vying to replace Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers at the viper position for the University of Michigan football defense. He's constantly watching video tape of Peppers to make the same transition Peppers did, going from safety to the hybrid linebacker role that demands substantial versatility with a blend of strength and speed.
However, Hudson also walks in Peppers' shoes in another way, a very tragic way.
"I lost my father to gun violence in McKeesport," Hudson said of his Pennsylvania hometown near Pittsburgh. "But I didn't let it get me down or, like some people, look for revenge for something like that and go down that road.
"But I used it as motivation because my dad wanted me to, first, be great at school and then be great at football. I just want to make Dad proud now and be a role model to the kids in McKeesport. I stay in touch with all the seniors in my high school now and tell them, 'Do your work, keep your head on straight, and everything will play out. Don't follow the distractions.'"
Carlos Hudson Sr., his father, was shot and killed as a passenger in a car driving through McKeesport on Aug. 22, 2013, when Khaleke was entering his sophomore year at McKeesport High. According to a newspaper report, Carlos, who had a cleaning business in Pittsburgh, spoke hours before the incident with his mother about Khaleke's football scrimmage.
Peppers lost his older brother, Don Anthony Curtis, who was shot and killed when Jabrill, whom he shielded and guided to better things, was in eighth grade. Peppers' father was imprisoned during most of his childhood.
Hudson said he knew of Peppers' "sad" story but said the two never discussed their common tragedies.
"But I knew Jabrill took that the same way I did," said Hudson. "He went through basically the same thing I did and used it as motivation, just as I did, wanting to help his family just like I want to help my family. He wants to be a role model to young kids, and I do, too. We have a lot of things in common."
Hudson said he strives to make his late father and his mother, Ravuan Bennett, proud of him.
"My dad went down that road as a kid and made bad decisions," said Khaleke, the third oldest of seven siblings, "but he made sure all of his kids didn't do the same thing. He made sure we did the right things and were responsible and successful people.
"McKeesport is a rough city. Tough people come out of McKeesport, but it's hard to keep your head on straight with all the distractions around you. But if you make it out of there, you can do great things, and not just in sports."
Hudson was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's 2015 High School Player of the Year after putting up impressive statistics as a Wing T formation back. He carried the ball 106 times for 1,118 yards, averaging a first down per carry at 10.5 yards, with an amazing five catches for five touchdowns covering 219 yards.
He committed to Penn State and also strongly considered UCLA and nearby Pitt. Michigan wasn't on his radar until Wolverine assistant coach Chris Partridge, who also coached Peppers in high school, called and said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was on the line.
"I'll always remember that night," said Hudson. "I was at a friend's house, and I got a call. It was Coach Partridge, and he said he was from the University of Michigan. I had never talked to Michigan, but he said, 'Coach Harbaugh wants to talk on the phone with you.'
"I thought about Coach Harbaugh and how he'd just coached (the San Francisco 49ers) in the Super Bowl. So, it was a big thing, and I told my friends. They said, 'Put it on speakerphone!' "
Hudson said Harbaugh began by saying he'd watched film of him.
"You're a great player, and we want to offer you a scholarship," Hudson recalled Harbaugh saying.
"I was silent for three seconds," Hudson continued. "I was shocked. I said, 'Thank you, Coach, I'm really blessed for this opportunity.' He was laughing and said, 'We don't know where to put you. You're an athlete, and we don't know whether to put you at running back or on defense.
"I told him, 'Coach, I will play anywhere on the field to help the team.' And I just started falling in love with Michigan. I came on my visit and loved it and committed. Having a degree from here, I'm going to be set for life. All of this played a factor in me coming here."
Hudson was a starting middle linebacker at McKeesport as a freshman and made 60 tackles with three interceptions -- two of which he took back for touchdowns. He then played safety in addition to running back and fullback and was rated the No. 1 athlete in Pennsylvania by Scout.com.
"I had No. 21 in high school and coming into college I wanted to wear No. 21," said Hudson. "But they had just retired it, and I couldn't wear it. So, I looked at the numbers that were open, and 7 was open, and I just decided on that.
"Since I couldn't wear 21, I wanted to create my own number."
No. 21, worn by 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, had been retired a few months before Hudson committed to Michigan.
Now, No. 7 is hoping to move into the position first manned at Michigan by No. 5, a multi-talented dynamo who gave opposing offensive coordinators fits.
"I don't feel pressure," said Hudson, who at 6-foot, 205 pounds has nearly the exact dimensions as Peppers. "Jabrill was a great player and everything, but I'm just looking forward to being the best Khaleke I can be. Everyone asks me about how does it feel replacing Jabrill, but I just take it as I'm just going to play the best I play and be the best Khaleke and just work hard and do everything top notch."
His name often has been mistaken by friends and acquaintances as being Hawaiian in origin, but Hudson said it was simply a name selected by his grandmother.
"People think I'm Hawaiian," said Hudson, adding that his name is pronounced kuh-LEEK. "But I say, 'No, it's just my name.'"
Peppers also had a unique first name, wore a single-digit number and played safety, before Don Brown became the defensive coordinator at Michigan prior to last season and installed a defense calling for the multi-talented viper.
"I love Coach Brown, man," Hudson said with a smile. "I knew Coach Brown before I got here because he was recruiting me for Boston College, and we had a close connection. He also coached a friend of mine, Ty-Meer Brown, from McKeesport, at Boston College.
"Ty-Meer told me a lot about Coach Brown. When he came here and started coaching us, there was no way you cannot like him. He's energetic and engages with us a lot. He's just a cool person and somebody you want to be coached by, a great guy."
The viper is a linchpin in Brown's defensive scheme.
"It hasn't been as hard of a transition to viper as it might seem," said Hudson. "At the strong safety position, you also have to know what the viper position is doing. We line up to the same side of the field. So, when I moved to the position (in the offseason), some of the viper I already knew. But some stuff I had to learn. It didn't take me long to learn it, though, because I was familiar with viper.
"You blitz, cover tight ends, cover slots (receivers) and also play deep as a third safety. When I found out I was moving to the position, I started watching all the film I could on Jabrill."
He credited Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill, the outgoing senior safeties, with bringing him along both on defense and special teams. Hudson blocked punts against both Illinois and Indiana and will continue playing on kick units as well.
The Wolverines play their spring game Saturday (April 15) at Michigan Stadium, and Hudson said practices leading up to it have gone well.
"Everybody thinks that because we're a young team we've gotten worse," he said. "But the players we have now are great players and athletes who think the game well together. Everything's moving smoothly now. Everything's looking great."