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New Jersey native, Heisman candidate Jabrill Peppers returns home to face Rutgers

Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers is a Heisman Trophy candidate for his versatility in all facets of the game, having played linebacker, corner, safety, wide receiver and punt returner this season. He's facing Rutgers in New Jersey for the first time Saturday after missing the game in 2014 due to a leg injury. – Photo by The Daily Targum

Drew Mehringer described a member of the Rutgers football team’s next opponent with a list of the positions he's forcing the Scarlet Knights' offensive coordinator to game plan against this Saturday.

"You look at his return ability, that says enough about his speed and his explosiveness, but that kids all over the field,” he said. “He’s played corner, safety, linebacker, he’s an incredible blitz threat.”

Senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton added to the list with what he provides on the offensive side of the ball.

“Getting the ball in his hands is something they wanna do, whether its passing to him ball in the flat, whether it’s wildcat, whether it’s just getting the ball in his hands in a standard running back position and letting him do something,” he said. “But the kid is a dangerous weapon, anytime he touches the field, he’s creates the opportunity to make plays.”

Head coach Chris Ash kept his analysis a bit more concise than his offensive coordinator and one of his captains.

“He's as good as there's been,” he said. “He can do it all. He's obviously got good size, freak-ish athletic ability, good ball skills. He's tough, not afraid to hit you, when he's on offense, runs the ball, he runs it hard. He can make you miss, run through you. My years of coaching, he's as good as there is.”

The player in question is Jabrill Peppers, an East Orange, New Jersey, native taking the college football world by storm with his versatility and athleticism for the second year in a row.

Peppers was a highly touted recruit out of Paramus Catholic, but rather than staying home and representing the Knights, he elected to become a Wolverine, beginning a pipeline to Ann Arbor for both his alma mater and the entire state of New Jersey.

Peppers is 1 of 9 New Jersey natives on Michigan’s roster, with Chris Partridge, who was his head coach with the Paladins and is now his position coach — or at least the one assigned to him on the roster — at linebacker hailing from Hackensack.

Partridge’s role as the director of player personnel in recruiting was a major factor in locking up the top prospect in the class of 2016 — five-star Paramus Catholic defensive end Rashan Gary — and earned him National Recruiter of the Year honors from, but Peppers’ decision to go to Ann Arbor pioneered the revolution.

Before attending Paramus Catholic in his final two years of high school, Peppers was part of a national champion program at Don Bosco in his freshman and sophomore seasons, playing alongside Hamilton and Leonte Carroo, Rutgers’ all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns that was selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

“He’s very elite player, probably one of the best in the country,” Hamilton said of Peppers, continuing to pile on the praise. “I don’t think there’s too many people that I’ve seen play in high school that would make major impacts at the next level than Jabrill and Leonte. Those are two players I remember watching at a young age that had a bright future ahead of them.”

Saturday’s matchup in Piscataway will be the first time Peppers plays in an official football game in New Jersey since graduating from Paramus Catholic in 2014. 

After playing sparingly in the first three games of his true freshman year, he was forced to take a medical redshirt after sustaining a second leg injury of the season in a loss to Minnesota, keeping him out of the 26-24 loss the Wolverines suffered to the Scarlet Knights in what was their first ever Big Ten win.

Peppers did play when Michigan got its revenge a year later, though, having a say in a 49-16 beatdown at the Big House last season.

His final stat line that day — 11 total yards and a touchdown reception on a bubble screen mixed into three offensive touches on offense with 6 tackles, one of which for a 3 yard loss, on defense — is a glimpse at what he’s expected to produce under the bright lights at High Point Solutions Stadium in the first night game of the season for the Knights (2-3, 0-2) Saturday.

Given a heavier workload as the main kick-off and punt returner, Peppers has flourished in the role, ranking third nationally in average punt return yards (20.5) among players averaging 1.2 returns per game, scoring one touchdown in the process. The numbers come in addition to his team-leading and third highest in the nation 9.5 tackles for loss, as well as his tackle total of 35, which is behind only Ben Gedeon for the team lead.

His versatility sees him play a part in the best pass defense and punt return units in the Big Ten, the second best overall defense and a top-5 offense in the conference.

Michigan (5-0, 1-0) heads into its third ever matchup with Rutgers looking to take its first lead in the series and Peppers is expected to play as big a role as he's had in the first five games of a campaign garnering callings for a Heisman Trophy nomination.

But despite all the accolades, all the talent, all the hype, the Knights aren't shying away from facing one of the best players the state they call home has produced — they're relishing the opportunity.

"He’s an athlete, so if he’s on the field, he’s probably gonna get the ball. It’s not too complicated when you have a player that’s good and you want to get in space, you’re gonna try to get him the ball, but it’s not gonna be any crazy emphasis (on him in preparation)," said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick, 1 of 3 other captains alongside Hamilton. "We’re not fearful … Yeah, he’s a good player, obviously he’s a standout, but now he’s our opponent. So we’re really ready to ball out, see what we got."

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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