ANN ARBOR — Lined up across from the opposing team’s top receiver is Michigan cornerback Blake Countess, a headstrong young man being afforded an opportunity that few Wolverines who have played his position have gotten.
For 60 minutes, Countess will shadow every move of his quick, rangy counterpart in one of the few one-on-one battles displayed in a football game.
This scenario hasn’t happened, but give it a year or two and it might. Given his rapid rise up the depth chart, the true freshman Countess could develop into a premier shut down cornerback defensive coordinator Greg Mattison envisions, similar to Charles Woodson or Marlin Jackson from the past.
Already Countess is arguably the team’s best player at his position, steadily progressing from a promising newcomer in camp to a key reserve to a guy who two weeks ago supplanted fifth-year senior Troy Woolfolk as starter.
“Everybody wants to be known as a shutdown corner,” Countess said Tuesday. “It comes with a lot of work. I think I can do it, but I mean, I still have a lot of work to do. But it’s definitely a goal.”
His coaches say Countess is full of confidence and doesn’t have a conscience when he plays, meaning whether he batted down a pass on third down or was beaten for a 20-yard gain, he’s able to compartmentalize and move on. His five pass break ups are tied for most on the team with corner J.T. Floyd, whom Countess credits for augmenting his ascension. Countess also praises Woolfolk, his roommate in fall camp, and the player he replaced after the first defensive drive in the Michigan State game. Woolfolk in turn moved to free safety in the bye week, bumping Thomas Gordon to the sideline.
“Me and Troy developed a little bond, so he was just like, when you get your chance, you do it,” Countess said.
One of four true freshmen playing on Mattison’s defense, Countess came to Ann Arbor as the third best recruit in the state of Maryland, per Rivals.com. He verbally committed to Michigan in mid-December, a couple of weeks before the coaching staff change was made.
It’s because of a rash of departures of blue chip cornerbacks that Countess found himself in a position to play so quickly. Players with major recruiting fanfare, guys like Boubacar Cissoko, Justin Turner, and Demar Dorsey, fizzled away, opening the door for Countess. Athlough starting already, he couldn’t have predicted.
“It was definitely a goal for me to play this year,” he said. “I just came in and worked hard and listened to everything and got a lot of advice from the older guys on the team. ... I expected myself to just work hard and be content wherever I ended up.”
Where he may end up, ultimately, is assigned permanently to the other team’s top receiver. That would make Mattison happy.
“I’ve said all along, the one thing about him that you feel like he has a chance to be pretty darn good is he doesn’t have a conscience,” Mattison said. “The play’s over and he’s ready for the next play. That’s what the great ones all have.”
RUNNING BACK COMMITS: Michigan’s 2012 recruiting class grew to 24 members Tuesday when Ann Arbor Pioneer running back Drake Johnson verbally committed. Johnson (6-foot-1, 200) is considered a low-tier recruit — his only other offer is from Eastern Michigan — but he has exploded in his senior season and totaled 738 rushing yards in two wins over Bedford.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.