Countess turns corner, turns heads

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Blake Countess made his first meaningful defensive appearance for Michigan due to an injury. Once he came in, it became very difficult for Michigan to take him out.

The cornerback rocketed from freshman depth at the start of the season to a contributor within four games after filling in for the injured Troy Woolfolk during the second half against San Diego State. By the time Michigan reached its off week last month, Countess supplanted Woolfolk as the starter.

His ascent happened that fast.

"He's a heck of a competitor," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You look at (him) through the recruiting process and all that, but you really don't know until you get them here. Watching him in fall camp, his willingness and eagerness to learn, his athleticism. He's got good hips and good feet, and that's kind of what you need out there.

"He's got a good amount of makeup speed, which you have to have at a corner position. And, he's tough."

Succinctly, he's what Michigan's new coaching staff is looking for in a cornerback opposite junior J.T. Floyd, who cemented the other cornerback slot earlier in the season.

Floyd was expected. Countess has emerged and become a rare freshman to start at cornerback for Michigan, joining a group that includes Donovan Warren, Marlin Jackson and Charles Woodson.

And he doesn't quite believe that yet.

"I have a lot of work to do, so I don't think I've done anything just yet," said Countess, the first time he has spoken since the season started.

That's not quite true. He made enough of an impression on the Michigan coaches that he replaced a fifth-year senior who entered this season as the Wolverines' top cornerback in the starting lineup. Countess' play ended up moving Woolfolk to safety, where he's now giving Countess support in the defensive backfield.

Countess showed his skill immediately. He made seven tackles and broke up a pass in less than a half against San Diego State. He has played meaningful minutes in every game since for the Wolverines, making 33 tackles, breaking up five passes and forcing a fumble.

He also has become a good coverage corner. While there are times he'll get beat on a play -- Northwestern beat him bad on a long pass -- he usually has been right on top of the opposing receiver when a catch is made. And if he wasn't, he has been a sure open-field tackler.

"When you're a corner, that's a tough job out there," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "For him to compete, and I said this all along, the one thing about him that you feel he's got a chance to be pretty darn good is he doesn't have a conscience. That play is over with and he's ready for the next play.

"That's the great thing about him."

Well, maybe not the best thing. The old coaching adage goes that the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. With the rate he's learning, the 5-foot-10, 176-pound Countess is setting himself up to be in position where a comparison with some of the Wolverines' best all-time cornerbacks might be valid.

It's something he's focusing on in the future.

"Everyone wants to be known as a shutdown corner," Countess said. "But it comes with a lot of work. A lot of hard work. I think I can do it, but we'll see.

"It's definitely a goal."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.