Marcus Ray always keeps a close eye on the Michigan secondary. He played there once, experienced a dream season alongside Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, and delivers opinions like he used to deliver big hits.
He gets paid to talk these days, as a commentator on the Big Ten Network. He'll be peeking in on TheWolverine.com regularly this fall, and offering his takes on Brady Hoke's crew.
Right now, he likes Michigan's secondary, and agrees with the move to play rookie Jabrill Peppers strictly at the nickel coming into the season.
"The easiest thing for Michigan to do, if they want to maximize Jibreel Peppers' potential, is to play him at one position and let him learn that," Ray noted.
Ray has heard the talk. Comparisons to Woodson abound, and he's not crazy about them. It's not that he doesn't see Peppers as talented. Ray just wants the freshman to create his own name, and sees significant differences in their situations.
"The reason I don't like people comparing Jibreel to Charles Woodson is that Charles had a better supporting cast throughout his career," Ray noted. "He had NFL talent around him."
That's not to say Michigan doesn't have NFL talent, but the number of performers from the 1997 roster of Wolverines who went on to play in the pros would be tough to match.
Ray sees Peppers performing well, but knows there are some issues with any rookie, regardless how talented.
"He may make some mistakes early on that can cost you a few yards here and there," Ray said. "He may blitz and not understand he should hit the 'B' gap instead of the 'C' gap. There is still a lot of thinking when you play underneath.
"You've got to understand how you fit in the run game. One false move can allow a run to go 70 yards.
"Essentially, a nickel back is a linebacker, as far the underneath is concerned. He's part of the run and the pass, and you have to understand where you fit in the run game. That includes every coverage."
Ray predicts, though, that Peppers will catch on quickly.
"He's already, physically, one of the best 11," Ray said. "But he hasn't proven himself. He still has to play football and go through camp. As the season wears on, I think his role is going to change significantly.
"He's going to do more as far as kick returning and playing nickel back, but he's going to need to get some reps at a different position. He may be the second-team strong safety. The more reps he gets, he's going to emerge as one of Michigan's best 11.
"When they go line up in the nickel, he'll be there, from watching him play and understanding Greg Mattison's defense. As the season moves along, you're going to need Jibreel Peppers out there, more times than not, especially when you start to play these road games against Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State."
Peppers just requires time on the field, Ray pointed out. Michigan featured rookie cornerbacks a year ago that needed the same sort of seasoning
but it came at a cost.
Now, Ray insisted, it should begin to pay off. Meanwhile, Peppers needs plenty of snaps early.
"He needs to get baptized by fire," Ray said. "He needs to take his lumps now, so you don't have to worry about him later, the same way Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis took their lumps versus Nebraska and Penn State.
"Jourdan, to me, is the best defensive back on their team right now. Last year, none of us would have been able to say that, by watching him play. He got some new coaching, some more attention, and now Jourdan is the guy. We're talking about a guy who could be all-conference.
"You also have Blake Countess and Ray Taylor, who finished up one and two in the conference in interceptions, respectively."
Ray is taking a wait-and-see approach on some aspects of Peppers' game, which only makes sense. But he wouldn't be surprised to see Peppers in some very big match-ups this season.
"I'm not too sure about his hips, and how fluid his hips are, as far as backpedaling, opening, dropping, covering a top-flight receiver," Ray said. "He's going to have to check guys like Devin Smith from Ohio State. We saw Devin Smith run right by Jourdan Lewis on third-and-9 right on the 50-yard-line in the biggest game of the year.
"I believe if Michigan gets that stop, it's a different ball game. This year, that will probably be Peppers, if Devin Smith is in the slot."
If that happens, there's no ducking the spotlight. Then again, there never is, when Michigan takes the field. And this year, it burns a little hotter than normal.
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