Ivory Bryant has been a major key to the Michigan Wolverines’ success the past two years.
Bryant isn’t a player. She’s the Most Valuable Person behind Michigan’s Most Valuable Player — her 21-year-old son, linebacker/safety/kick returner Jabrill Peppers.
On Friday night at Hard Rock Stadium, Peppers will lead the sixth-ranked Wolverines (10-2) against No. 11 Florida State (9-3) in the annual Orange Bowl.
Peppers is only a redshirt sophomore, but he’s expected to turn pro after this game. The Mel Kipers of the world project Peppers as a top-five pick in April’s NFL Draft.
He will be the highest-rated prospect on the Hard Rock field.
The next-best prospect is a player Peppers will likely have quite a few encounters with — FSU running back Dalvin Cook, projected to be a mid-first-round selection.
What makes Peppers so special?
“Good genes,” Michigan right guard Kyle Kalis said with a smile. “Whatever gene pool he came out of, he’s a lucky guy. He’s a physical freak. He does stuff you may never see again.”
Bryant is partly responsible for that gene pool, of course. But her role in Peppers’ life is much more than that.
According to an Associated Press story, Peppers was 7 years old when his father, Terry, was sent to prison and was 14 when his older brother, Don Curtis, was shot and killed.
“I was just 14 years old,” Peppers wrote in a 2015 story for The Players’ Tribune. “And for the second time in my life, the most dominant male figure in my life was gone.”
Into that void stepped Bryant, who insisted Peppers focus on academics along with athletics. She once benched him for a high school game as a punishment for lackluster grades.
Peppers learned his lesson, and he has enjoyed an athletic career in which very little has gone wrong. He won four consecutive state titles in New Jersey, accomplishing the feat at two high schools.
In track, Peppers won two gold medals as a junior and two more as a senior, becoming just the second male to win the 100 and 200 in consecutive years at the New Jersey Meet of Champions.
He also broke the New Jersey prep record in the 200 meters (20.79).
Peppers, a 6-1, 205-pounder, used that speed to run for 3,059 yards and 43 touchdowns during his prep career.
He also caught 57 passes for 842 yards and 17 touchdowns and grabbed seven interceptions, earning USA Today Defensive Player of the Year honors.
His all-around skills attracted Michigan coaches, who have used him in a variety of roles, which is partly why he was a unanimous All-America selection.
FSU will certainly be aware of his presence on Friday.
“He’s not real big, but he’s not small,” FSU offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said of Peppers. “He plays close to the ball. He allows [Michigan] to essentially play nickel defense all the time.
“You see the instincts — he’s hard to fool. He doesn’t bite on fakes.”
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said he believes Peppers is the best overall player in college football.
“I can put him in the pass rush or I can substitute him on any guy [in coverage],” Brown said. “We have four or five concepts where he’s aligned on different guys. You just have to make the call, and he’s over there or over there.”
Kalis is grateful he hasn’t had to play against Peppers. Practicing against him every day has been more than enough.
“He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” Kalis said. “The punch he packs at [205 pounds] is unreal.
“The way he moves — I’ve never seen a guy make cuts so fast. He’s like a gazelle. You watch him and think, ‘He’s so much better than me.’ But then he’s also just so much better than everybody else.”