Jabrill Peppers slid right, planted his right foot, changed direction, pushed off his left foot and turned up field.
All the explosive athleticism happened in a split-second, like it always has for the former five-star high school recruit, Heisman Trophy finalist and first-round draft pick. But it’s no small measure of reassurance for the Giants given where Peppers finished last season — on injured reserve with a transverse process fracture in his back.
“He looks like he did as a [New Jersey] state champion sprinter,” trainer Brian Walker told The Post. “Movement-wise, he looks free. He’s maintained that speed and strength, even though he is leaning up.”
The freak injury — a fracture to the side of a vertebra in the spinal column — left Peppers in severe pain at his postgame locker on Nov. 24, 2019. Just taking small steps caused the 24-year-old safety to wince, but he progressed to light workouts by season’s end and to feeling like normal sometime in February.
It all looked like ancient history Saturday as Peppers shuffled through a foot ladder, leapt for passes and chirped through his throwback Giants helmet — “Your feet are your meat and potatoes!”— alongside Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas and college-aged players during an intense two-hour workout.
Peppers reconnected with Walker — his former assistant coach at Paramus Catholic High School and now a trainer at DBacks Academy in Englewood — in the spring to set up 2-3 workouts per week. Giants rookie cornerback Darnay Holmes joined about a month ago.
“Jabrill is motivated by every little thing,” Walker said. “Now, it’s the opportunity for him to really fine-tune. You don’t want to repeat a season where you felt like you could’ve done more, especially coming off injury.”
Peppers will report to his second Giants training camp (fourth overall) Tuesday alongside other veterans. He was a superior playmaker to the rest of the Giants defense in the first 11 games last season, with 69 tackles, three forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown.
“This is a hometown thing for him,” Walker said. “The pride for the Giants is different than any other. It’s a different vibe because your friends and family are here. That’s the extra energy and effort he is putting toward it.”
The versatile Peppers played 63 percent of his snaps in the box last season but also rotated at cornerback and free safety, according to Pro Football Focus. Walker thinks cornerback could be Peppers’ best NFL position and draws comparisons to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and Byron Jones, a former safety who became the league’s highest-paid cornerback by the Dolphins this offseason.
“You could see him with a Gilmore — same shape, same body — where he could lock down a half [of the field],” Walker said. “This staff is used to having really good, really strong cornerbacks. Personally, I feel like he could make the jump like Jones. Both athletic guys. They just needed more time to develop in terms of technique.”
Walker preaches COVID-19 safety to all his trainees. Peppers wore a helmet or mouth guard nearly the entire time in 90-degree heat. He declined an interview request citing instructions from the Giants.
“We’re keeping him ready to play six quarters,” Walker said. “It’s going to be an interesting year. Mentally, how strong are people? That’s why it’s a consistent tempo, almost like a track practice. He brings his helmet so he gets used to feeling that pressure of keeping a mouth guard. He is being safe and smart.”
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