Rutgers hopes to contain college football's fastest rising star
One week after a two-way player had the game of his life against the Rutgers football team, the Scarlet Knights are tasked with containing college football's budding superstar, Jabrill Peppers, on the heels of his best collegiate performance for No. 16 Michigan last week against Minnesota.
Tanner McEvoy put on a show last Saturday in the Wisconsin's 48-10 win over Rutgers (3-5, 1-4) at Camp Randall Stadium. The fifth-year senior safety made four tackles, an interception and had a sack with a tackle for loss on defense in the Badgers' decisive defeat of the Knights.
But he didn't stop there.
The former New Jersey High School Player of the Year (2010) carried twice on offense out of Wildcat formation for 29 yards, highlighted by a 20-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach. This week, Rutgers looks to redeem itself in front nearly 110,000 screaming fans at the Big House, home to Peppers and the Wolverines (6-2, 3-1).
McEvoy and Peppers differ in that one is a senior and the other is a sophomore, but other than that, the similarities between the two are uncanny.
Both Peppers and McEvoy are dynamic athletes that start as defensive backs. Both grew up and played high school football in northern New Jersey. Both play two ways and both play receiver, running back and quarterback out of the Wildcat on the offensive side of the ball.
Lastly, the pair put on the best performances of their careers last week.
While Knights’ head coach Kyle Flood cannot ignore the parallels drawn between McEvoy and Peppers, his opponent this week, he acknowledges that there are variations to how they play on the offensive side.
"Every Wildcat package is a little bit different,” Flood said. “You're accounting for the pass because you've got some guys who can throw it. McEvoy actually played some quarterback so it's maybe a little bit more (pass) when he's back there. But we know Jabrill can throw it because we know some people he went to high school with.”
Even more dangerous than the threat of a pass is stopping the run from the Wildcat alignment, Flood said.
“Certainly the two-back run from one-back sets,” he said. “That’s always the challenge of the Wildcat and that’s why people do it, to get you to defend two-back runs with one-back sets.”
Peppers began his high school career at Don Bosco Prep where he won two state championships, the first over Bergen Catholic in 2010, defeating Player of the Year McEvoy, who played quarterback in his sensational senior season.
Peppers then shifted to Paramus Catholic after his sophomore year. Two more state titles later — four consecutive state championships in total — and the 6-foot-1, 205-pound athlete moved on to Michigan, where head coach Jim Harbaugh welcomed the Wolverine with open arms after the departure of Brady Hoke.
“The unique and rare thing about Jabrill Peppers is athletic ability and instincts,” Harbaugh said on the Big Ten Coach's Week 10 teleconference Tuesday. “Also, he’s very intelligent. He memorizes things easily and well. He’s got the ability to be told an assignment, look at an assignment, see it on a piece of paper or video and he’s able to visualize himself doing it.”
Rutgers has more than a few players familiar with Peppers from his high school days in the Garden State.
Redshirt-freshman strong safety Kiy Hester played against Peppers four different times in high school. Hester played for DePaul Catholic, residing in the same division of New Jersey’s Big North Conference.
"Obviously, he's a great athlete. He plays both ways and he did the same thing in high school," Hester said. "He's dynamic with the ball. So we just gotta get everyone to ball. Just swarm so we can limit him."
That job will be easier said than done, a week removed from Peppers banner performance where he played 92 total snaps making two pass breakups on defense and carrying four times for 16 yards and a touchdown on offense. He even sliced coverage teams for 84 yards on punts and kicks in a narrow 29-26 win over the Golden Gophers.
The Knights' freak athlete, sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay, not-so-coincidentally played basketball with Peppers back in middle school, three years before the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder began playing organized football.
"We played basketball together in eighth grade,” Turay said of Peppers. “Ninth grade year I heard how good he was, but I wasn't much into football so I didn't know much about it. But I knew he was a good player and I heard rumors about him playing multiple positions. So going up against him is an opportunity to meet an old friend."
Going up against him is one thing — bringing him down is quite another.
The beauty of the Wildcat — or Wild Wolverine — is that it creates one-on-one match-ups, forcing defenders to tackle athletes of Peppers' ilk in space.
But that doesn’t worry Hester — he’s hauled Peppers down in the open field before. And if the situation should arise again he feels Rutgers defense will be ready.
“You just take your shot,” Hester said. “I did it all throughout high school. We practice that a lot so I'm confident that if any of the guys on the defense get in that situation, I have no doubt in my mind we can get anyone down in the open field, one-on-one."
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