Heisman Forecast: Michigan’s Peppers intriguing, but can his versatility win out?

As Michigan's College Football Playoff case rises, so should the Heisman candidacy of Jabrill Peppers.

If anyone would know the glass ceiling that a defensive player deals with when it comes to the Heisman Trophy, it’s Hugh Green.

Talking to the Hall of Fame Pitt end –who finished second in the 1980 voting — for the upcoming book, 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners', Green said he didn't believe Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was a legit option in 2012, and he wasn't keen on Michigan's Charles Woodson winning in 1998, either.

Green equated it to a makeup call for his finishing 267 points behind South Carolina's George Rogers, saying “all I did was just make it more serious to give it to a defensive player.” But the point of Woodson's campaign was that he was never just a defender. He mixed 11 receptions for 231 yards and two scores and 33 punt returns for 283 yards a touchdown with his exploits as a shutdown cornerback who had 43 tackles, seven interceptions and five pass break-ups at the time of voting.

Nearly 20 years after Woodson's win, only Te'o has truly challenged for the award, finishing runner-up to Johnny Manziel in '12. Like Green, Te'o didn't factor in to his team's offensive scheme, strengthening the belief that a strictly defensive player can't win; it takes a multi-faceted game like Woodson.

Or like Jabrill Peppers.

The Michigan linebacker/safety — who coach Jim Harbaugh incredibly compared to the legendary Jim Thorpe — has lined up as a quarterback, running back and receiver and is returning punts and kicks. In all, he has five rushes for 98 yards and a pair of scores, 14 punt returns for 249 yards and a TD (including a 44-yarder vs. Rutgers that was called back), and three kick returns for a 31.7 average. He also has 38 tackles, including 10 for loss, 2 1/5 sacks and six quarterback hurries.

He's a veritable throwback to the days before the two-platoon system, when the likes of the award's first winner — or, to be more precise, the only winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy before its name was changed a year later — Jay Berwanger played halfback, quarterback, punted and returned punts, along with primarily playing corner on defense.

Peppers' case is growing along with No. 3 Michigan's hopes of making the College Football Playoff, and as great — and potentially historic — as Louisville's Lamar Jackson has been, the playoff isn't in sight right now for the Cardinals. Peppers has that, the regular-season finale vs. No. 2 Ohio State, the cachet of the maize and blue being a force again, and a narrowing list of legitimate candidates.

In saying that awarding Woodson the Heisman part of voters' “half-guiltiness,” for not giving it to him, Green also saw the Michigan corner as a safe pick because of his offensive contributions.

That's why Peppers is that rare non-traditional candidate with a legitimate chance. Barring some major setbacks for Jackson, Clemson's Deshaun Watson or the Buckeyes' J.T. Barrett, winning seems unlikely. But there's real hope that wasn't there when Te'o was asking voters to cast aside their perceptions of a strictly defensive player's impact.

Peppers, like Woodson before him, is proving that he's more than that.

We'll get into this week's Riser and Sliders momentarily, but here's how the Forecasters's virtual ballot stacks up going into Week 8.

1. Lamar Jackson QB Louisville, Soph.
2. Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson, Jr.
3. J.T. Barrett, QB Ohio State, Jr.


1. Jalen Hurts, QB Alabama, Fr.

The numbers aren't going to put him anywhere close to the class of Jackson, as Hurts is 45th in the country in total offense at 259 per game, but his case may closely mirror that of Barrett, who is averaging just 14 more yards per. As the Crimson Tide continue to leave little doubt they are the nation's best — and without a clear No. 1 running back, which has been a formula for Nick Saban to get a player to New York in the past — Hurts should keep build his case. Big-time matchups like this weekend against No. 6 Texas A&M don't hurt, either.

2. Jake Browning, QB Washington, Soph.

The nation's leader in pass efficiency (204.9), he and the No. 5 Huskies have an interesting matchup this week form the end that Oregon State held Cal's Davis Webb — who is third in FBS in passing yards — to just 113 yards and ranks 21st in pass defense (179.5) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (101.8). But as a freshman, Browning threw for four TDs and hit on 90 percent of his attempts against the Beavers on the road.

3. Donnel Pumphrey, RB San Diego State, Sr.

To be clear, the Forecaster still doesn't see Pumphrey getting a seat in New York given Browning's emergence in the Far West and — at this point — the defined top candidates likely to appear on most ballots. That being said, Pumphrey is putting up some ridiculous numbers for the Aztecs as he's rattled off three 200-yard games on the season and is over 1,100 yards through six games. Facing San Jose State, which is allowing 228.3 yards on the ground (113th in FBS), Pumphrey could add another 200-yard game this weekend.


1. Trevor Knight, QB Texas A&M, Sr.

In the last three games, Knight burned ranked opponents Arkansas and Tennessee for games of at least 225 yards passing and 110 rushing with nine combined touchdowns, but can he put together a similar performance vs. No. 1 Alabama? The stage won't be an issue, as Knight has a history with the Crimson Tide, throwing for 348 yards and four TDs in a 45-31 win in the Sugar Bowl back when he was with Oklahoma. As good as that 'Bama defense was — ranking fifth in FBS in yielding 286.5 ypg — this one has been a tick better (274.0) while playing a schedule that has included four Top 25 teams in seven weeks. Look for Knight and Co. to drop from the ranks of the unbeatens.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB Stanford, Jr.

It's over. If the stats alone — he'd gone three straight games without finding the end zone — McCaffrey's fate was sealed when he missed the Notre Dame game with a still undisclosed injury. At this point, averaging 188.2 all-purpose yards per game, the Cardinal back is in danger of the worst finish for a runner-up since Rex Grossman and Adrian Peterson failed to finish in the top 10 in 2002 and '05, respectively.

3. Greg Ward Jr. QB Houston, Sr.

Despite a season-high 142 yards on the ground, Ward went without a touchdown in the Cougars' narrow win over Tulsa, and has thrown three interceptions the last two times out. He should bounce back statistically against SMU and its 109th-ranked defense, but with Pumphrey rising, it seems even more unlikely that Ward can work is way to an invitation to the ceremony.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' is out now, and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners' will be released Nov. 22, 2016.