Penn State's Miles Sanders (24) fights off a tackle attempt by Michigan's Khaleke Hudson (7) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 21.
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ANN ARBOR — How do you replace the production of a Heisman Trophy finalist?
That question was asked often throughout the spring practices and fall camp around the Michigan football facility. Jabrill Peppers packed his bags for the NFL, leaving a void in one of the nation’s best defenses.
The responsibility to fill the hole fell on sophomore Khaleke Hudson, who assumed the starting viper position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety. He played in all 13 games last season — mostly on special teams — tallying eight tackles and two blocked punts. It provided just a brief glimpse of what Hudson could do in live action.
Once the games began in 2017, it became apparent that the Wolverines possessed a hard-edged defender whose instincts often placed him near the football. The floodgates opened Saturday when Hudson turned in an unprecedented performance, breaking Michigan records and tying NCAA totals.
He finished with 15 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, and a forced fumble against Minnesota. Hudson’s eight tackles for loss tied a Big Ten and NCAA record.
“That’s something some people would dream about doing,” said senior linebacker Mike McCray, a co-captain. “Credit to him and the hard work he puts in.”
The records actually came on Sunday after Michigan watched the game tape. After the review, Hudson was credited with an additional 1.5 tackles for loss. He shared Big Ten defensive player of the week honors with Iowa defensive back Josh Jackson and graded 99.9 out of 100 by Pro Football Focus.
“He was everywhere,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You don’t see that every day, that kind of performance No. 7 had. It was outstanding. Khaleke was the shining star.”
Hudson’s performance didn’t come out of nowhere. He was named to Pro Football Focus’ Big Ten defensive team of the week after just his third start when he had five tackles, a half-tackle for loss, an interception, and two pass breakups against Air Force. Hudson had seven tackles against Cincinnati, and entering the Minnesota game, he had six tackles for loss this season.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” Hudson said. “My teammates helped me in every way, working hard in practice to prepare for games like this and to have performances like this. I feel I had a good game, but I feel it can always be better.”
A yearlong apprenticeship under Peppers served Hudson well. He said watching Peppers prepare, his fearlessness, and how Peppers played in games had an impact on his approach. Hudson, a McKeesport, Pa., native, was a three-star recruit who wasn’t expected to edge his way into the difference-making category this quickly.
One teammate — junior safety Tyree Kinnel — sees firsthand what Hudson is capable of. He watches in practice, meetings, and the film room. Predicting a record-setting night was unlikely, but Kinnel knew what was possible from the talented Hudson.
“I definitely saw it coming,” Kinnel said. “You guys saw last year what Jabrill did in that position — he was making plays every week. Now you guys finally got to see Khaleke do it. His opportunity came [Saturday], and he was able to take advantage of it and played really well. He’s a great player and was deserving of that performance.”
Ironically, it was a play Hudson didn’t make that drew perhaps the most attention. In the second quarter, he got too good of a jump on a Minnesota punt and missed the block because he overran the ball.
“Bad eyes. I should have kept my eyes on the ball. I think I jumped straight up in the air instead of jumping at his foot,” Hudson said, adding that special teams coach Chris Partridge would probably be upset with him.
“It’s a fine line,” Harbaugh said. “Incredible job for him not to rough the punter. Very unlucky to get past the ball like that. That’s what I saw.”
Viewers also witnessed a breakout performance.
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