Michigan's Peppers shocked to be Heisman Trophy finalist

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Posted: Dec 09, 2016 2:57 AM
Michigan's Peppers shocked to be Heisman Trophy finalist

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jabrill Peppers pressed a phone against his right cheek, head bowed, and swayed from side to side.

He picked his head up when he heard unexpected news.

"Wow. Hey," he said, tilting his head back with a huge smile upon finding out he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. "Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!"

The do-it-all, three-way dynamo had quite a year for No. 6 Michigan, and the team says he played 15 positions across offense, defense and special teams.

But the nation's most versatile star wasn't necessarily projected to be among the final five players up for the Heisman.

"I was in shock when I got that call," Peppers told The Associated Press. "I'm still in shock. It's surreal. When you're a child, you set goals and you work hard for things like this."

The East Orange, New Jersey, native had to work harder than most. He was 7 when his father, Terry Peppers, went to jail and was 14 when his older brother and role model, Don Curtis, was shot and killed.

Ivory Bryant , his mother, made sure sports ranked second behind school.

His mother will join him at the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Saturday night in New York. He wasn't planning on inviting his father.

"With my dad, our relationship is still growing," Peppers said. "He's trying to get back on his feet."

Peppers is a star who contributed this season in three facets of the game . In the rare moments he wasn't on the field, he was standing near coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline, ready to roll when his name was called.

Peppers won the Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile college football player. On defense, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder usually lined up as a linebacker after spending most of the previous two years as a defensive back.

Michigan's Charles Woodson is the only player to win the Heisman while primarily playing defense — though, like Peppers, Woodson also played on offense and special teams.

It's rare that defensive players are even among the Heisman finalists. Since 1986, the list includes just Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth, Washington defensive lineman Steve Emtman, Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.

"It means a lot to be a part of that group," Peppers said. "I didn't finish the season as well as I thought and hoped I would, and there were a lot of guys that could have been finalists ahead of me."

Many expect Peppers to skip his senior season to enter the NFL draft, though he's declined to talk about it because he doesn't want to distract from Michigan's preparation for the Orange Bowl against No. 10 Florida State on Dec. 30.

"We have one more game to play and that's where my focus is," he said. "I absolutely want to end the season on a good note and get the sour taste out of my mouth."

The Wolverines closed the regular season with two losses in three games, including a stinging setback as a third-ranked team to second-ranked Ohio State, 30-27 in two overtimes. The Buckeyes beat their rival in part because they didn't let Peppers make any game-breaking plays on offense or special teams.

Peppers did have seven tackles and intercepted a pass, but he had just four yards rushing on four carries. On special teams, he returned one kickoff for 44 yards and a punt for 5 yards.

Harbaugh, though, wouldn't trade him for any player in college football.

"He's an amazing player that does everything that anybody asks, any of the coaches or teammates ask him to do," Harbaugh said. "Whether it's play safety or corner or nickel or linebacker or quarterback or slot receiver or running back, punt returner, kick returner, he does it all and without hesitation, without flinching. He does it to the best of his God-given ability every time."

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HEISMAN-DEFINING MOMENT: Like Woodson, Peppers returned a punt for a touchdown into the south end zone in Michigan Stadium for his signature play of the season. Peppers showed his speed, strength and agility on the 54-yard score in the fourth quarter that helped the Wolverines pull away to beat Colorado 45-28.

BEST GAME: Peppers scored on a punt return, had a season-long, 55-yard kickoff, a 17-yard run and nine tackles, including a sack, against the Buffaloes, who are No. 11 going into the postseason.

WORST GAME: In a loss 14-13 loss at Iowa, the Wolverines needed a spark and their best all-around player couldn't provide it. Peppers was held to 11 yards rushing on four carries, returned a kickoff just 16 yards, a punt 19 yards and made five tackles.

PRO PROSPECTS: Unless he makes a stunning return to college, Peppers is projected to be among the top picks in the draft. He fits the profile of what NFL teams are looking for, a player they can line up against a slot receiver or send on a blitz. Peppers will also be viewed as an asset in the kicking game.

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Hollywood, Florida contributed.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larrylage