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Jabrill Peppers Is the Shape of College Football to Come

What do you give a man who can do everything? A Heisman.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Of the 21 players listed in Bovada’s latest Heisman odds, 20 play either quarterback or running back (Alabama wideout Calvin Ridley is the lone exception). I have nothing against college football’s preeminent glamour positions, but some variety would be nice. After all, the Heisman purports to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Shouldn’t a wideout, a defensive player, or (god forbid) an offensive lineman occasionally be able to fit the bill? The last non-QB/RB to take home the Heisman was Michigan all-around stalwart Charles Woodson in 1997, and only Larry Fitzgerald (2003) and Manti Te’o (2012) have finished second since, despite the best efforts of Ndamukong Suh, Tyrann Mathieu, and Amari Cooper, who were all invited to the Heisman ceremony.

Given Bovada’s aforementioned odds, the QB/RB Heisman stronghold appeared destined to extend through 2016. But on Sunday, Michigan redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers informed the media that he intends to regularly play on offense, defense, and special teams on up to 100 plays per game this season, flipping the Heisman race upside down and ushering in the dawn of positionless football. If a full-time three-way player can’t win the Heisman, then no non-QB/RB is hoisting it ever again.

It’s hard not to compare Peppers to Woodson, who played cornerback, special teams, and receiver on the Wolverines’ 1997 national championship team, but Peppers won’t be limited to any one position on each side of the ball. On defense, he’ll be flying around in the secondary as he always has, but will also be featured as a linebacker this season. In late June, Peppers apparently clocked a 40 time of 4.34; in the past 10 years, the fastest time any linebacker has run in an NFL combine is 4.40. He’ll continue to return kickoffs and punts on special teams, and he’s expected to continue playing a mixture of “slot receiver, wide receiver, running back, and wildcat quarterback.” Myles Jack played linebacker and running back for UCLA, and we were quick to declare him a paragon of versatility; Peppers intends to play 10 different positions over the course of next season.

Peppers defies positional labeling. He considers himself an athlete; I think of him as a wizard. He’s been manning multiple positions since high school, and has become majestically swole since matriculating at Michigan. As a three-way player logging a significant number of plays per game, Peppers should merit Heisman consideration just by staying healthy. But he’s not simply a jack-of-all-trades: He’s a speed demon who also happens to be a powerful hitter and an end zone magnet. If he establishes himself as the best offensive, defensive, and special teams player on the Wolverines, then he should win the Heisman going away, which I say as a goddamn Ohio State fan. Peppers’s multifarious excellence transcends rivalries.

Consider this a formal plea to Heisman voters everywhere: Stop prioritizing gaudy passing and rushing stats at the expense of every other aspect of football. Awarding quarterbacks and running backs is perfectly fine in moderation — Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Deshaun Watson all deserve commendation — but failing to recognize him would be an unforgivable oversight. You can’t hold his position against him, because he doesn’t have one.