Dennis Norfleet impresses at cornerback in early bowl workouts
ANN ARBOR -- Dennis Norfleet is short.
Like, 5-foot-7 short.
He's also playing a new position.
Like, three weeks new.
Oh. Right. And he's just a true freshman.
Those are the facts, and each one indicates the fleet-footed tailback has little shot at playing cornerback for Michigan in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
Except for one thing: The guy can really move.
Safety Jordan Kovacs has seen a lot in his four years as a starter, and knows this: Norfleet has a lot working against him, but his feet are good enough to allow him to play cornerback against the Gamecocks.
"Yeah, because he's such a good athlete," the captain said. "He's played corner a lot in high school, and I think it's been a pretty smooth transition. We're only a few practices in, so I'm really excited to see how much he really will develop because, like I said, he's a great athlete and got very good feet. Very good footwork.
"I'm excited to see how far he can take it."
Norfleet's athleticism made him a dynamo on kick return this year, injecting life into a unit that was listless last season. He averaged 23.4 yards per attempt, third in the Big Ten, after Michigan slumped to 18.4 yards last year. That was 11th.
But he rarely saw the field on offense, despite Michignan's dire need for tailback production. He picked up only two carries for a unit that averaged 78.3 yards per game.
That's a school worst.
Norfleet was buried behind Fitz Toussaint, Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes and Vincent Smith this year, and all but Smith are back next year. Norfleet would have to contend with them all over again, plus the addition of redshirting freshman Drake Johnson and at least one incoming freshman.
At cornerback, Norfleet could help fill depth needs. Michigan already is down its top two cornerbacks for the bowl game, with senior J.T. Floyd suspended and sophomore Blake Countess injured (ACL).
Courtney Avery and Raymon Taylor are expected to start against the Gamecocks, while Norfleet will compete with sophomore Delonte Hollowell and true freshman Terry Richardson for time at nickel back.
The early returns suggest, with some technique and fundamental work, Norfleet has a real shot despite his dearth of experience and diminutive stature.
"He's playing very well -- very well," Kovacs said. "Good athlete. I think obviously you've seen him on kick returns. He's quick, very explosive. Not very big, but he makes up for it. Very phsyical, strong kid who is going to contribute.
"He's one of those guys who I think could play on both sides of the ball -- he's that good of an athlete."
The biggest question about Norfleet's move to cornerback always will be his size. At 5-7, he's easily Michigan's shortest defensive back.
In fact, he's the shortest defensive back at the school since 2000.
Kovacs acknowledges that's an impediment, but believes Norfleet's sheer athleticism could help make up for it.
"If he plays with proper techniques and fundamentals, he'll be just fine," said Kovacs, who knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges.
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