ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jabrill Peppers never said during last season that he was leaving Michigan early for the NFL, but he didn’t have to. His teammates knew. Khaleke Hudson knew.
And Hudson realized that if Peppers was leaving, then somebody in 2017 would have to take over the hybrid linebacker/safety role known as the viper in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme. Hudson knew that could be him.
That’s exactly the case as Michigan closes in on the start of this season. No one is going to replace all that Peppers, a Heisman Trophy finalist and first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, did for the Wolverines. When it comes to being Brown’s viper, however, the sophomore Hudson has the physical makeup to make the position his own.
The question facing Hudson and the Wolverines is, how long will it take for his experience and mental awareness to match his physical play.
“I’m just taking it all in, just doing what Coach Brown tells me to do, just going through the process and trusting everything,” Hudson said on Tuesday. “I’m hoping everything falls into place.”
Hudson’s modesty with the media belies the aggressive nature he displays on the field. He showed in the spring game that he can diagnose plays and get to the ball on time — with force.
Linebackers coach Chris Partridge described Hudson with single words.
“Violence. Aggression. Hammerhead,” Partridge said. “He’s a guy that just loves contact, and I think people feed off of that, too. He’s becoming very well-rounded as a player.”
Hudson never took any reps at viper last season during practice. When Peppers couldn’t play against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Josh Metellus started in his place. Metellus is now back to playing safety.
Hudson played on special teams in all 13 games as a freshman and saw action at safety in a pair of contests. He blocked two punts and was twice named special teams player of the week for the Wolverines.
“Towards the end of the season, when we knew [Peppers] was going to leave for the NFL, it came across my mind that I might want to play viper because it might be a good position for me,” Hudson said. “It’s real fun. I’m able to play deep safety. I play in the box and I’m able to blitz off the edge. I’m able to do a lot of things. I like everything about it.”
‘He likes being physical’
Hudson was a versatile two-way player at McKeesport (Pa.) Area High School outside of Pittsburgh. He made 60 tackles and intercepted 3 passes his senior season, while rushing for 1,118 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns on offense. He was named the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Player of the Year, and that versatility has helped Hudson adjust to his role this season.
“He took that position for himself,” Metellus said. “It fit him perfect. Khaleke, he just fit the viper position perfect. Coach Brown, Coach Partridge, they’ve been helping him out. He didn’t really need my help. I barely had experience at the viper position until recently. He [doesn’t] really come to me and ask me questions about that.
“He’s a downhill player. He likes playing in the box. He likes being physical.”
The trick is harnessing that physicality.
“It’s my second year and I feel I’m going to the ball faster, I’m moving faster just because I know everything,” Hudson said. “It’s easier to visualize.”
Hudson fits the mold of what Brown wants from his defensive players. He’s just a sophomore, so that mold still needs to be shaped.
“You’re never going to tell Coach Brown that you don’t want someone to run full speed into things. That’s a small part of it,” Partridge said. “Khaleke played as a freshman last year, but he’s young. He’s going to round out his game like anyone would. Coach Brown would never say take away the physicality but you learn how to play with that physicality.”