Sept. 17, 2009
By Leah Howard, U-M Athletic Media Relations
What a difference a year makes for Michigan football. It was only 364 days ago, under miserable and torrential conditions in South Bend, Ind., that the Wolverines fumbled and bumbled their way to a 35-17 loss in a game that would largely come to epitomize the struggles of the 2008 season. Last weekend, under blue and sunny skies in Ann Arbor, U-M turned the corner, using a last-minute drive to defeat Notre Dame, 38-34, and set the college football world atwitter with expectations of Michigan greatness.
What a difference a year makes for sophomore/freshman safety Jordan Kovacs. During an uncomfortable season away from football last year -- and while preparing for his second knee surgery in 10 months -- Kovacs watched the Notre Dame game from his family home in Toledo. Last weekend, he watched the latest edition of the rivalry contest from a considerably different vantage point -- first from the sideline at Michigan Stadium and later, with the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, from his position in the Wolverine defensive backfield.
Perhaps fittingly, Kovacs is -- if you forgive the analogy -- Michigan's own Rudy story. Only he didn't have to wait four years for his moment in the spotlight. And that moment wasn't simply a down or two late in a lopsided victory; it was an entire quarter in a high-energy, dramatic shootout.
As the third quarter wound down against Notre Dame, Kovacs heard the rumblings on the sideline that he might need to enter the game, but even he found them too implausible to believe. But when junior/sophomore starting safety Michael Williams couldn't control the painful cramping in his leg, the U-M coaches went to the depth chart and called out Kovacs' number. At game's end, he had played 31 snaps and registered three tackles -- two solo and one assisted -- in just his second appearance donning the Maize and Blue.
"Coach [Greg] Robinson grabbed me and just said, 'You're going in'," said Kovacs. "He kept asking, 'Are you all right? Are you ready?' I think he was more nervous than I was. All the players did a nice job of calming me down out there, but I felt really comfortable. It's still kind of a blur. Looking back now, I don't know what I was thinking; I don't know if I really understood the situation. But I just went out there and played, and it all just came naturally.
"It was just so amazing to be out there on a national stage and in that game. It was everything I had ever dreamed of."
Kovacs' dream began in Curtice, Ohio, just outside of Toledo, where he grew up following the Wolverines. His father, Louis, had played football at Michigan as a walk-on in the early 1980s, and despite receiving little recruiting attention through his high school career, Kovacs had always held similar aspirations. After sweating through an initial wait-list designation, he earned his acceptance in June. It was the first step toward realizing the dream; the next came months later in Ann Arbor.
Open tryouts were held the first day of school. So, while the rest of the student body worried about finalizing their schedules and finding their way around campus, Kovacs thought primarily of his future in football. His nerves settled after a successful showing on the field. The coaches made note of his footwork, his speed and strong ball skills -- all the things desirable in a defensive back. They liked him and wanted him on the team. The trouble came later, off the field, during a meeting with Michigan's athletic trainers.
"I guess you could say that I failed my physical," said Kovacs with a smile. "I played a lot of sports in high school, and my knee had just gotten really banged up. It didn't feel right, and I knew something was wrong with it. So, I had it looked at. They went in and found some cartilage damage. But, after the surgery, it still felt the same. That's what I told the Michigan trainers. I think I gave them a little too much information."
A second look revealed a slight meniscus tear in his left knee, and it would need to be repaired before he could continue playing football. Though disappointed, Kovacs took the news in stride. He had the second surgery in October and just three months later, with his knee feeling better than it had in years, he returned for a round two of tryouts. His performance was similarly memorable, and this time around, he completed the process, claiming a spot on the Wolverines' spring roster.
"I did feel a little more comfortable the second time," said Kovacs. "I had a lot more confidence in my knee. More confidence, I guess, came from knowing that I'd been through it once and made it. I just thought nothing was going to stop me from making it again. But it did feel like I was starting from scratch. I had to have that same chip on my shoulder and just go out and play hard."
"He was determined to keep coming back," said secondary coach Tony Gibson. "He worked his tail off throughout spring ball and in the summertime. I noticed him in spring ball a few times when we let the younger guys scrimmage. He's a physical kid. When you watched him in scrimmages, he was always flying around making a hit, breaking on a ball and getting an interception. He just kind of stood out."
Kovacs' effort in the spring earned him an invitation to Michigan's fall camp. The coaches figured he might prove useful in some special-team scenarios. But about two weeks into camp, during another scrimmage in which the coaches rotated in several young, untested players, Kovacs again stood out. From there, he continued to work his way up the depth chart.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez's affection for walk-on players is well documented. A former walk-on himself at West Virginia, Rodriguez has long stressed the value of filling a roster with players hungry for a chance to prove themselves. It improves depth and elevates the level of competition at every position. And after the Wolverines' victory over Notre Dame last Saturday, no one sang Kovacs' praise louder.
"Here it is in crunch time, the second half of the game, they've got some of their four- and five-stars -- and they're really good players," said Rodriguez in his postgame press conference. "And then we got Jordan Kovacs, who was a school-start walk-on, second time. First time he didn't make it because he was injured, and he went and got his knee fixed. We told him to come back again to try out with the general student body, and not only does he try out and make the team, now he's in there playing at safety, in the middle of crunch time, national TV, against Notre Dame. To me, that's pretty special. I'm awfully proud of him."
Within the next few years, Michigan aims to have the strongest walk-on program in the country. The coaching staff has made it a priority to court all prospective student-athletes -- be it a five-star standout or student-body walk-on. If that student-athlete is good enough to play, they say, he will certainly find an opportunity at Michigan. And just two games into their second season in Ann Arbor, the coaches have found their first rags-to-riches success story in Kovacs, who is nowhere near ready to call it a career quite yet.
"I came here with a list of goals," said Kovacs. "I knew that walk-ons don't really play in most programs. I just wanted to come in here, make the team and fulfill my role to the best of my ability. My main goal really, throughout the course of four years, was to make some special teams. When I got in during week one, I was kind of amazed. It's gone really fast, and I'm just trying to soak it all in now. I want to continue to work hard, keep that walk-on chip on my shoulder, go out there and play and just really enjoy myself. Hopefully, the team will be successful and I can contribute in some way. That's all I can ask for."