The Heisman Trophy Trust’s mission statement is deceptive. The award purports to honor an “outstanding college football player,” but the reality is more restrictive. The Heisman is like an exclusive club granting entry mostly to quarterbacks and running backs, with a wide receiver occasionally making it past the velvet rope. In the 80-year history of the award, there have been only seven winners not listed at one of those three positions. The group has trended toward uniformity in recent years: Quarterbacks have hoisted the bronze trophy all but twice since the turn of the century.
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But there are instances when a player who doesn’t line up at one of those positions is so special that voters can’t ignore him. That’s the case with junior Jabrill Peppers, the catalyst behind Michigan’s resurgence under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines designate Peppers as a “LB/DB” on their roster and, as such, he would become the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman since former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. Yet the best way to gauge Peppers’ performance is to disregard his position altogether.
Peppers arrived at Michigan as a five-star cornerback recruit. After appearing in only three games due to multiple lower-body injuries in 2014, he started 12 games as a defensive back in 2015 before switching to SAM linebacker during the off-season under new coordinator Don Brown. If you tuned into a Michigan game in 2016, however, it quickly became clear that Peppers’ contributions transcend his nominal position.
He is a muscle-bound, lightning-quick rover who lurks menacingly around the line of scrimmage, waiting to upend offensive coordinators’ best-laid plans. Peppers blankets pass-catchers downfield, ranges from sideline to sideline to snuff out screen plays, darts past linemen to pressure quarterbacks and charges into the box to crunch ballcarriers.
And that’s just on one side of the ball. Michigan has deployed Peppers as a running back, wide receiver and quarterback in various packages on offense, and he leads the Big Ten in punt return average. Peppers’ responsibilities may change from snap to snap, but the quality of his play is consistently excellent. Think Christian Bale shifting seamlessly from The Machinist to The Dark Knight to The Big Short, or Apple setting a high bar with its portable media players, smartphones and personal computers. “You can just see the way that he impacts the game from so many different angles,” Steve Palazzolo, a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus, said of Peppers.
In 933 snaps this season, Peppers has seen time at 15 different positions, according to Michigan. He leads the Wolverines with 16 tackles for loss, is tied for second with 72 total tackles and ranks third with 751 all-purpose yards. Peppers’ numbers are dwarfed by those compiled by the Heisman frontrunner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, but Peppers’ case for the award is grounded less in statistical prowess than qualitative indicators like versatility and a certain “wow” factor that makes his every touch appointment viewing.
A wholesale revision of the Heisman evaluation process is long overdue. The electorate should not hesitate to break the stranglehold quarterbacks and running backs have maintained on the award, a positional duopoly that does a massive disservice to dozens of candidates every year. There are signs that voters are beginning to take defensive players more seriously. Over the last decade three defenders have finished in the top five of the Heisman race (Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009, LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in 2011 and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012). Peppers offers voters a perfect opportunity to take the next step: Elevating a defender to first place.
It’s fitting that Peppers, the defensive lynchpin of a dominant Michigan team, is a strong candidate for the award 19 years after another Wolverines star won it while anchoring the defense of a national champion (split with Nebraska). At the time Peppers was two years and two months old, and it seemed unlikely that nearly two decades, and counting, would pass before another primarily defensive player claimed the Heisman.