By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
Thirty-two years separate Jim Harbaugh and Jabrill Peppers.
It’s one of very few differences between Michigan’s new coach and his blossoming safety.
Harbaugh’s in-your-face mannerisms are iconic, his meltdowns are internet famous. Fear doesn’t appear in his dictionary, nor his life. The word doesn’t exist.
Peppers is well aware of his supreme talent, and if his opponents are not, they’ll soon realize it. And he isn’t afraid to let them know beforehand with a bit of smack talk.
“He’s fiery, he’s crazy, like me,” Peppers said of Harbaugh. “So we definitely get along real well.”
Michigan fans viewed Harbaugh as a messiah when he returned to Ann Arbor to become the team’s head coach on Dec. 30. And they still do. His presence has already been felt, from helmet stickers to an old-school approach. Hope is abundant in Ann Arbor.
But Peppers has the chance to do something Harbaugh cannot — lead the Wolverines back to prominence on the field.
And it’s not only because of his immense talent.
Peppers is a gamer and strives at bettering himself and his teammates. He won’t allow his teammates to accept mediocrity and holds himself to that same standard. It’s why a missed interception — in a intra-squad scrimmage, no less — stuck with him.
“That’s what separates the good players from the great players. That would have changed the game, I had daylight in front of me,” Peppers said. “I tried to start running before I caught the pick and you can’t do that, you got to always stick to the fundamentals. I told the team that one was on me. I didn’t get a chance to make another play, but you live and learn. You live and learn.”
Peppers entered Michigan in 2014 with tremendous hype. He was ranked the No. 2 overall recruit, and before ever donning a winged helmet, received lofty comparisons to Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.
None of it phased him. Peppers broke fall camp last year as a starter on Michigan’s stout defense, but his first collegiate season never came to fruition; he was injured twice in 2014 and was forced to take a medical redshirt.
Having the sport he loves taken from him was quite the learning experience for Peppers.
“I definitely had to grow up a lot, definitely from a standpoint where no one’s going to feel sorry for you at this point,” Peppers recalled. “Yeah, I got hurt. So what? I still have to be a great teammate and help the guys in any way I can. It’s just about maturing. I had to take a minute, sit back and think, ‘Wow, this can actually be taken from you.’ The thought of me not playing football never crossed my mind until I got hurt and couldn’t be out there with my brothers. That hurt me more, and that’s why I feel grateful for being at a university like Michigan where my degree will mean so much more in the real world.”
The end of Peppers’ onerous true freshman season ended with a coaching change. He had a strong relationship with former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, the man who recruited him to Ann Arbor. A lifelong Wolverines fan, Peppers didn’t hesitate when Hoke was fired.
“I’m a smart guy. I kind of saw which direction the program was going to go,” Peppers said. “When you choose a school, you don’t choose a school for the coaches, you choose a school for the school. I love Michigan, I grew up a Michigan fan. I love everything about Michigan, so I trusted Jim Hackett that he would bring the right guy in to do the job and he did. He went out there, let it be known who his guy was and we got him.”
Peppers couldn’t get enough of practice drills this spring. After completing the sequence, Harbaugh would glance over and find the safety at the front of the line. Again and again, Peppers was at the front, eager to improve.
“Hey, come on, Jabrill Peppers isn’t taking every rep in these drills,” Harbaugh said. “But that’s the kind of youngster he is.”
Peppers has earned the admiration of Harbaugh during their first spring at Michigan. Harbaugh gave him an “A-plus” grade for his performance, noting he missed only one day of practice.
“He had to get a tooth out and he did everything he possibly could to practice that day,” Harbaugh said. “You start to fall in love with guys like that.”
At Michigan, Harbaugh has made the winners of practice situations run sprints while the losers watched. The winners, he believed, earned the right to better themselves.
Peppers has been a fan of Harbaugh’s method, but noted they were flipped towards the end of spring, which left him hungrier for success.
“When you don’t run, you kind of feel bad. You’re like, ‘Nah, I want to get better, too,'” Peppers said. “That makes you come out the next day with that much more energy and that much more will to win the situation or games that they have us (do).”
Only 19, Peppers has become a vocal leader at Michigan. Is he too young to already be taking control?
Not at all.
“Coaches always tell me if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” Peppers said. “That’s how I take it. High school, I was like that. Pop Warner, I was like that. It’s just who I am. I kind of can’t help it.”