I spent a sunny, beautiful late summer afternoon in the Big House watching Colorado take on Michigan. The visiting Buffaloes stormed out early but couldn’t overcome a key injury or a furious Michigan comeback.
Here’s my abridged notebook on several of the NFL prospects.
Jabrill Peppers--Normally I do the prospects in alphabetical order but Peppers’ tour de force performance deserves top billing. The Michigan defender was the best player on the field, in part because he was all over it.
He announced his presence with authority on the very first run play, knifing around the edge and slamming the ballcarrier to the turf for a 2-yard loss. Later, he perfectly timed an A-gap blitz and hit the QB before he had a chance to get rid of the ball.
Peppers is primarily a strong safety but he lined up at every non-DL position on Michigan’s 4-3 defense except field corner. His play speed is incredible; I’ve rarely seen anyone who covers more ground faster than No. 5 in blue. For the first half of the game he was the only Michigan defender who could match Colorado’s impressive perimeter speed.
He’s at his best in the safety-as-linebacker role, essentially an outside linebacker but one with more coverage responsibilities. The Michigan D needed him in the middle, as he was the one tasked with getting everyone in the right spot and calling the coverages. When Colorado kept torching them early on the slant, Peppers took it upon himself to play the slot and shut it down.
Oh the speed! Others will probably time faster in workouts but I can count on one hand the number of players I’ve seen with better in-play speed in over 30 years of attending football games. Rod Woodson is the pinnacle when I saw him at Purdue, with Marquise Goodwin at Texas close behind. That might be it. On his punt return house call, he covered the final 30 yards in no more than 3 seconds.
Many asked during the game where I see Peppers playing at the next level. He doesn’t have a true position right now, even less defined than how UCLA used Myles Jack. Peppers is faster and a much better, far more productive all-around football player than Jack, though not as bulky or strong. I envision Peppers as a defensive weapon dictated by offensive personnel. Against 10 personnel, he’s a middle linebacker. Against 12 personnel, he’s the strong safety.
I wouldn’t play him at corner other than in the slot against a flexed TE in the NFL, as his hips and ankles are a little tight. That’s about the only legit knock on Peppers, who should be a top 10 overall pick. He might wind up with the highest grade I issue this year.
Chidobe Awuzie–Colorado’s top prospect didn’t disappoint, and it’s easy to like No. 4 at cornerback. What stood out in watching him from an end zone view is how well he positions himself on routes. Awuzie is very quick to identify the route and adjust his positioning to play the receiver and the angle from the quarterback. When the Wolverine offense was struggling early, Awuzie’s sticky coverage on the outside and down the field was a big part of that. Receivers Amara Darboh (primarily) and Jehu Chesson could not get free.
The size appears just average, but he plays bigger against the run. Michigan did take advantage of his willingness to attack the run with a couple of jet sweeps, though it’s worth noting the long TD came with Awuzie on the other side of the formation. On that play he flew across the field but didn’t have the body control to gather and make the play. He was my primary focus when Michigan had the ball and he impressed. I expect to see Awuzie at the Senior Bowl and think he’ll do well in Mobile, too. He looked like a 50-75 overall pick who can play man or zone.
Jake Butt–The Michigan tight end was their most effective weapon in the first half of the game. When the wideouts weren’t getting open, Butt was quite effective on the shallow cross. His hands are fantastic, able to pluck the low throw. I also noted his ability to adjust his speed to compensate for the pass.
This was the 7th time I’ve seen Butt in person, so I already had a pretty well-formed opinion on the popular senior. As much as I like how well he handles the end of a passing play, the rest of his game just isn’t dynamic. As a blocker, Butt more gets in the way than he moves people or sustains contact. His release off the line is only average. So is his speed, in NFL terms. There is little sharpness to his routes, something my 11-year-old son who accompanied me noted on one play,
“Why did Butt round that cut? If he turned harder he would have been wide open”
Butt is a very effective collegiate receiving tight end. His surname and high-profile gig will inflate his draft profile with most fans, but I don’t see him being more than a solid No. 2 TE in the NFL. His game reminds me of Indy’s Jack Doyle. That’s a good player but not someone you take in the first three rounds.
Tedric Thompson–Colorado’s safety spent most of his day in coverage down the field. Thompson was quick to identify his responsibility and showed range to the sidelines. The senior had two diving deflections, one in the end zone that he probably should have caught for an INT. The one time where I saw him align tight, he registered a tackle for loss on a telegraphed run play (Michigan had an inordinate amount of those). This is an easy cop-out, but he really does remind me a lot of his older brother Cedric, a 2015 fifth-round pick now on his second team.
Chris Wormley–No. 43 in blue got off to a slow start, unable to get penetration or disrupt the quick-hitting Colorado passing attack in the first half. Along with the rest of the defense, Wormley perked up in the second half. He bagged a sack (likely a half-sack in the stats but he created it) and drew a holding penalty. His best asset is his closing burst, which is very good for a defensive tackle. I still want to see his eye for the ball against the run improve, though that’s a tough thing to evaluate in person with limited replays.
Sefo Liufau–This was the first time I’ve seen the Colorado QB in 2016, and I came away impressed. He threw two absolutely perfect deep throws for TDs, holding strong in the pocket to give his receiver enough time to separate down the field. The arc and zip on the throws were spot-on.
Unfortunately Liufau got hurt on the second bomb, suffering an ankle injury. He tried to tough it out but wound up finishing the game on the sideline without his shoulder pads. Colorado’s offense ground to a thudding halt in his absence.
I liked his quick release, as well as the ability to quickly reset his feet and deliver to either side of the field. Liufau picked apart the Michigan coverage on slants, almost always reading where the holes would be based on alignment. The accurate senior showed above-average ball placement and a good enough arm. I’m hopeful his ankle injury isn’t serious because I’d like to see more of Liufau as he hits the Pac-12 schedule. I’ve seen far worse and less promising QBs than him at recent Shrine Game weeks.
Jeremy Clark–Michigan’s big corner had an up-and-down day. Colorado’s perimeter speed gave the 6’2” Clark trouble, though the Buffaloes generally picked on the other CBs. He’s a guy who has generated some scouting buzz in place of the injured Jourdan Lewis, but in this game he simply didn’t stand out.
And even though he’s just a freshman, behold Michigan defensive tackle Rashan Gary. I wasn’t paying close attention to the lines but it was impossible to ignore Gary. His strength and speed for a 285-pound freshman are astonishing. If he learns to sink his weight, he’s going to be a very high draft pick once he becomes eligible. Gary has two more years, much to the Big Ten’s chagrin.