Preview 2016: Linebacker Comment Count

Brian August 31st, 2016 at 4:25 PM

Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle.

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[Bryan Fuller]

Depth Chart
STRONGSIDE  LB Yr. MIDDLE LB Yr. WEAKSIDE LB Yr.
Jabrill Peppers So.* Ben Gedeon Sr. Mike McCray Jr.*
Noah Furbush So.* Mike Wroblewski Jr.* Devin Bush Fr.
Josh Uche Fr. Elysee Mbem-Bosse Fr. Jared Wangler So.*

The old guard had been around forever—Desmond Morgan started as a freshman and had an injury redshirt in there—and is now gone. In their stead there is… well, a guy. Michigan's linebacker recruiting in the Hoke era was a major failing, so after one guy they've mishandled and one guy who narrowly evaded a career-ending injury there's freshmen and the only non-Order-of-St.-Kovacs walk-on on the two deep.

Could get hairy if anyone can get to these guys on the ground or protect their quarterback long enough to get 'em in the air. So probably not that hairy. Still, along with the offensive line and quarterback, linebacker stands out as a position at which things could go pear-shaped.

On the other hand, Peppers. He's actually in this post!

STRONGSIDE LB: HYBRID SPACE ASSASSIN

Rating: 5.

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WOOOO! [Bryan Fuller]

Oh hey, it's JABRILL PEPPERS again. He's taken the baton from Jake Butt when it comes to posting shirtless jugs machine exploits:

And this year he hopes to refine his immense talent into a TFL and PBU machine.

One part of his game is already flawless and has been so from the drop. He was a bonafide hybrid space player from his first snaps against Utah. Any sort of swing, flare, or screen to the wide side of the field was going to die horribly. Peppers was truly, literally unblockable in space. He'd slow up, pick his moment, and just explode past the wide receiver who drew the short straw:

Three times in this game Peppers destroyed plays that attacked the wide open spaces he is set to patrol. If Michigan can rely on that, those passes across the middle that open up because of bubble fakes get removed along with the screens; it's kind of a big deal to be able to do that.

The utter consistency with which this happened became a defensive bellwether. I eagerly awaited the moment when the offensive coordinator got fed up with having zero access to a big chunk of his playbook and said "screw it." One snap later the OC was reminded why he wasn't doing this:

There was an internet item purporting to show that Peppers missed 20% of his tackle attempts; you can mostly ignore that. A Peppers missed tackle was often something a lesser player wouldn't even get an attempt in on.

Blocking someone with his explosiveness on the edge is a futile task. This is a screen that he turns in barely outside the hash and still gets a tackle in on, because he can wait until the proper moment and just explode past the guy who drew the short straw:

Peppers gets places fast and brings a pop when he gets there. Sometimes he makes the play himself and sometimes he allows others to rally to make it, because he's constricting space that other guys cannot.

I say "mostly" because Peppers does need to refine a few things. He has a bit of Brandon Harrison disease wherein he gets going so dang fast that he overruns his target, and his tackling form could use some work. But even when he missed a tackle last year he funneled things back to his teammates.

As Peppers moves inside more often this ability will serve him well. There was a spate of tiny linebacker articles over this offseason, and this one from The Ringer highlights that Peppers evasion thing:

The key to smaller linebackers surviving in a land of 330-pound giants isn’t taking them on in single combat; it’s anticipating movements to avoid combat altogether.

“Those guys seem to make their living not by getting off blocks, but by never getting blocked,” Snead says. “They’ve got to read things quickly so they can use their deficiency to their advantage.”

There was the occasional indicator that Peppers would be able to continue his uncanny ability to blow past blockers even as space gets constricted. Here he reads the play and simply redirects past a fullback assigned to him:

His explosion is such that he can dart around blockers to the "wrong" side so fast that he makes it right. He makes all that Joe Bolden stuff work, and that'll be key when he is faced with much larger opposition.

We have some evidence what Peppers will look like as a linebacker. He was in the box on scattered snaps. He was kept clean, for the most part, and Peppers showed an ability to read and react. This isn't hard, but we don't have much else to go on:

Against UNLV he lined up as a Jake Ryan-style SAM on the line of scrimmage and did a good job to push the play back inside.

He was used as a blitzer very occasionally, and looked much like he did whilst erasing screen games nationwide. He's fast and brings a load and often comes in too hot to get a clean shot.

If he does get a free run at a blindside target an Oregon State receiver can tell you what the likely outcome is:

Peppers has the potential to force a ton of fumbles.

When Peppers is an actual SAM linebacker and not reprising his hybrid space player role, Plan A is keeping Peppers clean by demanding double teams for the SDE; Plan B is Peppers blowing the minds of linemen and blocky/catchy guys with his ability to do make something conventionally understood to be wrong work for him.

Peppers's coverage is still somewhat in question. He had issues early trying to defend horizontal double moves. That first impression lingered, and then the big bad thing against Penn State hammered it home for a lot of folks:

Peppers was rough early, no question. He was much better at playing press man as an outside corner, where he could set up to the inside and just run with his dude.

He developed over the course of the year. By midseason he was racking up some physical PBUs, usually when he was allowed to set up in press:

He was still a bit iffy in the slot but started making it difficult for guys to get in their routes, and he started making the occasional play in off man. The Penn State debacle is evidence enough that his coverage is still a work in progress, but in this case we really do mean "work in progress" instead of "permanent problem" as people so often do when they deploy that phrase. His improvement should be obvious. He won't be perfect but slot receivers aren't going to get the best of him for much longer.

Peppers also has upside as a safety. He's obviously kind of a big deal in run defense, and his speed allows him to get over the top of deep routes even when he lines up close to the line of scrimmage.

Peppers can and will do a half-dozen different things on D. You'll see him as a SAM, as a nickel, as a strong safety, as a boundary corner as Michigan tries to put out fires and exploit mismatches. Boston College SAM Matt Milano is a good baseline: 60 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and 3 PBUs a year ago. Peppers is around the same size and much more athletic. (I have no idea how athletic Matt Milano is and I'm sticking with that assertion.) I'd expect more pass defense stats and not so many TFLs since the DL will eat up their share, but as I said on the other side of the ball his omnipresence should lead to a bunch of stats both ways and a Heisman finalist slot.

[After the JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! Probably!]

BACKUPS

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Furbush (#59) is a different kind of SAM [Fuller]

For his first couple years on campus, redshirt sophomore NOAH FURBUSH [recruiting profile] was mostly notable for absurd and possibly fictional weight swings. He went from a 240 pound high schooler to a 210 pound freshman and a 242 pound sophomore. This year the pendulum has settled down, and left Michigan with an enticing athletic package:

At 235, Peppers is a very different kind of SAM linebacker than Peppers, and in that is a hint about how Michigan plans to handle the manball outfits on the schedule this year. When Wisconsin or Michigan State rolls into town, Furbush figures to have a significant role as a third genuine LB. (Peppers could flip to corner or safety, or Michigan could use Furbush to steal snaps they can apply to offense or special teams.)

Furbush was a special teams standout a year ago, making a few impressive tackles on the coverage units and helping spring Jourdan Lewis for a big kickoff return. His effort on that play was notable enough to make a Harbaugh press conference:

“He blocked seven guys. Most unbelievable effort I’ve seen on a kick return,” Harbaugh said.

Per Brown he "has a chance to be a real deal guy"; back in spring Lorenz reported that he'd been "told multiple times Jim Harbaugh loves [Furbush] as a player."

Furbush should start rotating in situationally. Some games he'll be limited to short yardage and goal line stuff; some games he could end up being something close to a starter.

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Uche will get around you and then use eye lasers

Unless Wangler's wandered over here and nobody bothered to tell us the other options here are freshmen. Co-MGoSleeper of the year JOSH UCHE [recruiting profile] is the kind of guy who gets listed as a defensive end some places despite being 6'2" and 210 pounds: an explosive edge pass rusher. He was Don Brown's first offer upon his arrival in Ann Arbor, and Brown managed to secure him despite offers from SEC powerhouses like Florida and Auburn. Brown's scouting report on Uche is both enticing and very Don Brown:

The number one thing he can do is he can pass rush with anyone in the East. He has a great get off and can turn the corner. Josh uses his hands really well. We’re projecting him as a SAM linebacker. Has shown some ability to defend on the edge but can also play in space. … We really think his pass rush ability is unique.”

Other superlatives from his recruiting profile include "an incredibly quick first step," "everything is just explosion," "relentless and physical," and that he's "able to dip his inside shoulder and get around the corner." If he was significantly bigger he'd be a premium DE prospect; as it is he's a bit of a tweener who got knocked in the rankings. Per Rivals's Rob Cassidy, though, he's a "perfect fit" for Brown.

Uche is raw after an abbreviated high school career and needs to add a significant amount of weight, but look out in a couple years.

Because of roster necessity, KHALEKE HUDSON is addressed as a safety. If Michigan can find two guys to man those spots Hudson's brand of hilarious John-Woo-in-pads violence is a perfect fit for SAM. Here's hoping.

INSIDE LINEBACKER: MEH?

RATING: 2.5

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nice chops [Fuller/MGoBlue]

Many things that should be about BEN GEDEON are not. He should be a junior; he is a senior. He should have gotten big chunks of time over the past few years; instead he never got a real shot at displacing the middling veterans in front of him except when targeting roulette reared its head.

It was thus frustrating when Bolden went out against Michigan State and Gedeon stepped in to perform:

We liked Gedeon? I want to like Gedeon? Liking Gedeon makes me like 2016 more, and  already like it a lot.

Yes. Almost the only truly new information we got in this game came in the form of Ben Gedeon, thoroughly competent linebacker. MSU was able to test Michigan linebackers from time to time; Gedeon did well, consistently. This is pretty friggin' good right here:

Takes a hit, moves on, takes another hit, gives ground but still forces it back.

On the next play he'd avoid a cut block and keep his feet to make a near-TFL:

This was not a real tough matchup for him since MSU all but completely avoided passes that a linebacker could be relevant on. MSU's OL was also not proficient at getting out to him. But his instincts were good and he demonstrated the physical ability he's been reputed to have. An encouraging first step.

After a +6.5 and no minuses in that game Gedeon did not chart against Minnesota or even play against Rutgers. (PFF gave him a very positive grade as well for people doubting my sanity.) While his 2015 was up and down I struggle to understand why Gedeon barely played in 8 or so games. Bolden just scraped above zero most outings and while I liked Morgan just fine he did have an atrocious game against Minnesota. Surely there were opportunities to play him more.

It's hard to reconcile Gedeon's playing time with the noises coming out of practice. Don Brown:

“Ben Gedeon has had an extremely positive spring, so I’m excited about his progress and where he’s at.”

Brown was not around last year when Gedeon struggled to get off the bench so maybe that's an actual thing. It's still hard to believe he'll be a revelation when he's just a year younger than the departed and could not push through Joe Bolden's mediocre play. But Michigan has not only a new DC but a new linebackers coach. It could be a real thing.

The MSU game was a high point; the rest of the year was a bit meh. He was closer to Morgan than Bolden when it came to delivering a blow to lead blockers and getting to the ballcarrier:

And when kept relatively clean he flashed the ability to work his way through trash:

He seems a step faster than either Bolden or Morgan, and while raw speed is well down my list of linebacker attributes to care about, if you can get sideline to sideline it's a bonus:

Coming out of high school he was called "the freak" and some of that did translate to college. He's pretty athletic for his size. That stuck out in spring:

I concurred, saying "short stuff over the middle was generally well-covered and there wasn't much uncontested up the seams."

On the downside he occasionally tried to do someone else's job and vacated his lane:

He was also susceptible to missing tackles in the very bad way. When Peppers missed a tackle it was usually in a productive fashion. Gedeon had a series of missed tackles that tacked on chunks of yards to opposition plays.

There were a few more incidents like that I didn't clip because reasons; Gedeon came in for some mild clucking after the bowl game:

That Gedeon number is alarming.

Sample sizes were low, especially for non starters, and Gedeon had the misfortune to miss two tackles that collectively added 20-30 yards to UF's totals. You should keep that in mind but don't overrate the importance of those two plays relative to solid outings in the middle of the season when he was starting because of various ridiculous targeting calls.

There must be some flaws in there or else he would have played more.

There's no real reason to thing Gedeon's going to be an upgrade over the departed, but no real reason to think he'll be significantly worse, either. He projects as a faster but more mistake-prone Morgan, or a version of Bolden much better at hitting people. Average beckons.

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[Eric Upchurch]

At the other ILB spot the sudden re-emergence of MIKE MCCRAY [recruiting profile] after a year spent trying to recover from a career-threatening injury was a massive boost. McCray didn't exactly have a ton of people to clamber over to emerge as a starter, but dude is a touted recruit and son of a former OSU captain who is entering his redshirt junior year. The optics there are much better than any freshman.

And McCray left little doubt. Devin Bush enrolled early and got to competing with McCray at WLB; from the sounds of it he wasn't particularly close. Partridge was busting out the best words very early in spring practice:

Has Mike McCray been full go? He’s had a lot of shoulder issues over the years. Is he doing alright with that?

“Yeah, he’s been incredible over the past first five practices. He’s a pleasant surprise. You know, you kind of knew he had it in him and just his first five practices have been phenomenal.”

At around the same time a source told Lorenz that McCray was "unreal". Webb saw him in person down in Florida:

Early in 11-on-11 action he met Ty Isaac in the hole and brought him down for no gain. A few plays later he showed nice feel in coverage and would have de-cleated Jack Wangler on a crossing pattern.  His best play came later on in the practice when he timed a blitz perfectly and tagged Kareem Walker in the backfield.

I was impressed when I saw him at Ford Field:

McCray is clearly the guy leading the race to start next to Ben Gedeon, and he looks the part.  … I saw him catch a couple blocks from OL, but I also saw him absolutely truck a couple guys. He's thick, he will hit people, and he's pretty athletic for his size. He needs to get more consistent when taking on OL—needs to get that Desmond Morgan ability to get under them and rock 'em back—but he is very viable.

After the spring game I called him a "tough customer" who "hammered a number of lead blocks like James Ross playing a Penn State OL. Jourdan Lewis concurred:

“He looks really good out here,” said Lewis.  “He is probably one of the guys we look up to as the guy that should step up this year at that linebacker position. I’m excited for Mike. He has great upside.”

McCray's recruiting profile was split about exactly how much upside he has. Some guys thought he was a two-down linebacker not particularly well suited chasing spread H-backs; others thought he was a superior athletic package. Only live-fire snaps will tell us which way it's breaking.

So far, so good. You always want someone to grab the job with authority; McCray has. And he is a redshirt junior with a big time recruiting profile. Linebacker's a bit shaky, yes. This is not a situation like "Mark Moundros is going to flip sides of the ball and play."

McCray could be anywhere between real bad and real good. He's been X-factor'd.

BACKUPS

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[Bryan Fuller]

It's iffy past the expected starters. Nobody has seen a snap and the most likely contributors are true freshmen and walkons. Amongst them DEVIN BUSH JR [recruiting profile] is the leader. Bush enrolled early after a pitched recruiting battle between M and FSU, where his father starred. Michigan pursued him like he was a five star; ranking sites were split between three and four.

Bush projects as a thicker James Ross in a defense that is much better suited to his vertical attacking capabilities. ESPN:

Modest frame but really well-built and explosive. … very good short-area burst but also possesses the speed to make plays to the sideline. … Beats blockers to the point. Quick to read, react and get on the downhill attack. Takes sharp, direct angles to the ball and stays square to line of scrimmage.

He's an undersized bolt of lightning who's going to get wrecked if caught flat-footed but can deliver various Ross-like blows if sent forward on the snap.

Like a few other guys in the class, he's a great fit for Don Brown despite not actually being recruited by him. Bush started making a name for himself as a big hitter during spring. Webb:

He clearly caught his coach’s eye. Very quickly he has earned a reputation for being fierce in the box against the run.  He is also good in pursuit showed his motor and tenacity when running back Joe Hewlett bounced a third-and-long play outside for what looked to be a sure first down. Bush turned on the speed and chased him down from the backside.

Brown was "very happy" with his progress, FWIW. By midseason he should be getting a couple meaningful drives a game as Michigan grooms him to start next year.

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We have a Wroblewski(#46) photo! [Fuller]

After Bush the guy Don Brown mentions most at press conferences is redshirt junior walk-on MIKE WROBLEWSKI, who was the number one overall pick in the spring game draft. So he's got that going for him. Also this from Brown last spring:

Mike Wroblewski, we moved him from defensive end to linebacker earlier on in the spring practice period and it seems to have been a good move for us. He’s still got some work ahead of him, but he’s doing a very, very good job.

Wroblewski got a scholarship this fall after generating a number of additional press conference mentions. Lorenz says he "will definitely see the field this year." The current assumption here is that will be limited to garbage time. Not only is Wroblewski a walk-on but a guy who just switched positions. He's part of the conversation strictly out of necessity.

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Mbem-Bosse, Gil, Wangler

The sudden emergence of Wroblewski is a negative sign for the other ILB types. It's only a minor ding for freshmen ELYSEE MBEM-BOSSE [recruiting profile] and DEVIN GIL [recruiting profile], who were both expected to be redshirt candidates. Mbem-Bosse is a physically imposing and very raw MLB type; Gil has added about 30 pounds over the last year to transition from safety to linebacker. Both guys should be put in the oven for a couple years to see how they turn out., though Harbaugh did mention Mbem-Bosse as a freshman who could play.

It's considerably worse for the veteran. Not a word has been said about JARED WANGLER [recruiting profile] since his matriculation. Meniscus surgery a week before the spring game plays a role, but there were a ton of press conferences and four open practices prior to Wangler's injury—that's not just the meniscus. As a recruit he was supposed to be a LB/S hybrid who would be a good candidate for Don Brown's SAM position, but all talk about non-Peppers options at that spot has been about Noah Furbush. With Devin Bush moving past Wangler immediately upon his matriculation and Wroblewski emerging, it's getting late early for him.

Comments

reshp1

August 31st, 2016 at 4:50 PM ^

Remind me what happened to Ferns? It seemed like he was one of the most gung ho advocates for the program as a recruit and then, poof, he was gone. I didn't think that much of it at the time, but man, could we use him right now.

reshp1

August 31st, 2016 at 5:06 PM ^

I know, I meant what was the story there? Just didn't like it here? I recall it came completely out of left field (for me at least), I was just wondering if the back story ever emerged.

EDIT: Did some googling. Looks like it was a casualty of Hoke getting canned. Really too bad he didn't wait for the dust to settle a little and to see who was taking over. I have a feeling the decision would have been a lot harder knowing Harbaugh was the incoming coach and Mattison would be staying on. 

http://www.mlive.com/wolverines/index.ssf/2014/12/family_coaching_chang…

stephenrjking

August 31st, 2016 at 5:01 PM ^

LT and QB are questionmark spots where we have another guy that is almost as good ready to go, so they're not as terrifying. You are absolutely right about this. The traditional LB position has no depth at all; Peppers in the lynchpin that makes the entire defensive scheme work.

Cross your fingers.

bronxblue

August 31st, 2016 at 4:55 PM ^

This remains the only part of the team I am legitimately concerned about.  Not because I think they'll be bad, but that they seem to be so "meh" when you hear people discuss the unit.  You get the random "Bush looks good", but nobody seems to be falling over themselves to praise the expected starters.  Doesn't mean they'll be a liability, but I think of LBs like RBs on defense; you can probably get by with mediocre productivity in the right system, but having a stud there really makes everything go better.

stephenrjking

August 31st, 2016 at 4:58 PM ^

Average... average... average...

That's not a complaint. That's a hope. If we can just get "average" from the non-Peppers guys that's a big, big win for the only potential weak spot in the defense. Assuming guys stay healthy.

Peppers, of course, has huge potential.

The pessimist in me worries that guys who were incredible last year will somehow mysteriously regress, just because some of the performances last season (DL, Peppers) were so suprisingly, consistently terrific. So a nagging part of me refuses to believe that Peppers is real, that he'll be every bit as brilliant as last year and more. Just because it would be too good to be true.

But logic must speak: If he were on another team, I would be absolutely terrified of Peppers on every play.

He is on our team. He is their terror. If healthy and used correctly, Peppers might be the best defensive player in the country. The Heisman whispers are not inappropriate here.

TheRonimal

August 31st, 2016 at 9:34 PM ^

One of my Sparty friends was asking me if I thought Peppers was a little overhyped the other day. Didn't really know how to answer it at first because I always assume everybody knows what a freak Peppers is. He referenced that his stats didn't seem all that great, but honestly I had no idea what his stats were/are. I just mentioned that Peppers is a crazy athlete that does a lot of things that don't always show up in the stats. His coverage skills have been his weak point. His speed, tackling, and ability to blow up screens are all very strong points. I gave him the benefit of the doubt since I don't think he saw much of Peppers in action last year, but it was just a really weird exchange I had with him. 

The Maizer

September 1st, 2016 at 1:16 PM ^

I think fans of teams other than Michigan have a misperception that Peppers is equated with Woodson because that was the talk when he was a recruit. Those fans look at Peppers now and don't see a ridiculous boundary corner and think he must be falling short of the hype. Non-Michigan specific media also focus on the unusual-ness of his three-way player stuff more than his defensive skills, so many just don't get exposed to the fact that his HSP skill is incredible.

m1jjb00

August 31st, 2016 at 5:03 PM ^

Shouldn't he be getting some from the get go?  I suppose you could assume that this defense will keep meaningful snaps down to a minimum, so no spelling is needed, but wouldn't a baseline be something close to Geddeon?  Don't you want to get him ready just in case?

stephenrjking

August 31st, 2016 at 5:09 PM ^

I don't think a Gedeon baseline can be assumed for a true freshman. The "meaningful series" by midseason suggests that he is fully part of the rotation, something we would like to see but is hard to guarantee for a true frosh. 

But who knows? These first two games will probably be over before halftime, so he should get plenty of time on the field.

dragonchild

August 31st, 2016 at 6:25 PM ^

This year's Spring Game draft was quite different from the first.  It was much less of a game.  Some starter locks like Smith and Darboh didn't play, while others were only available for a few snaps.  So it wasn't "Jourdan Lewis" it was "5 snaps of Jourdan Lewis" and some such, putting him near the bottom.  It's also possible there was some meddling by Harbaugh to get some position battles on tape (especially QB) but I'm speculating there.

That still left a lot of decent guys on the table who were slated to go the distance, but the other thing about drafts is that it's not always about BPA; sometimes it's about messing with the other guy.  But point stands; you don't get drafted #1 unless the guy drafting you has expectations.

Farnn

August 31st, 2016 at 5:53 PM ^

My hope is that average LB play becomes good with the DL Michigan has in front of it.  Not seeing many OL release to the second level and multiple double teams needed to handle guys like Wormley and Glasgow should allow the non-Peppers LBs to make the plays that are there.

Space Coyote

August 31st, 2016 at 6:23 PM ^

I think Brown's more direct scheme (lots of blitzing, single gap responsibilities) will help the LBs play faster, rather than be forced to two-gap and read/react a lot of Cover 1 pass responsibilities.

That said, Brown's defense requires a lot of communication because of it. That's where I'm worried the most. The biggest thing that is often lost with Bolden is that he was by far the best communicator at the LB level. He got guys in the right spots, he got guys lined up, he allowed the defense to function as it should as a unit. Gedeon came in, and he did rotate more than I think Brian is referencing above (for both Bolden and Morgan after Minnesota IIRC), and you'll notice more simple busts by the defense. Morgan was also more prone to miss an adjustment (there are neck sharpies vs OSU that show both Morgan and Gedeon not properly aligning). This is my concern. Communication will be essential for this defense. My guess is that is the biggest improvement both ILBs made this off season. Brown's a pretty vocal guy. He'll get his LBs vocal.

Needs

August 31st, 2016 at 9:56 PM ^

Well, given that the Ed Davis 6th year appeal is still pending, who knows, but under the way the rule is commonly applied, no, because he took a normal first year redshirt and then missed his third year due to injury. To get a sixth year, you have to lose two years to injury.

But maybe he was injured his first year. After all, I don't remember him being scout team player of the week at all...

Ty Butterfield

September 1st, 2016 at 1:29 AM ^

Honestly think Peppers is a little over hyped. HOWEVA, if Peppers does get an invite to NYC it most likely means Michigan wins the division and is in the Big Ten title game.