Jordan Kovacs lives the walk-on dream with Michigan football team
The closer Jordan Kovacs got to playing - actually playing - for Michigan, the team he grew up rooting for, the harder it was for him to believe.
When the walk-on was elevated to second-team safety early in fall camp, Kovacs didn’t bother to phone home the good news.
"I didn’t know if it was actually going to end up working out," he said. "I kind of didn’t believe in myself, so kind of kept that on the down low."
When coaches pulled him aside at halftime of the Notre Dame game and told him starter Mike Williams was cramping up and to be ready because they might need him, Kovacs figured it was motivation.
"I kind of kept blowing it off, saying, 'Oh yeah, like I’m actually going to get in the Michigan-Notre Dame game,'" he said. "Eventually, he ended up getting really bad cramps and he had to go back to the locker room and the next thing I know I’m out on the field playing with Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd and our first-team defense in front of 110,000 in crunch time on national TV. It was crazy."
Crazier is how things have worked out since.
Kovacs, a redshirt freshman, made his first career start in Michigan’s Big Ten opener against Indiana, when Williams was out with a sprained ankle, and has hardly come off the field since.
He made 17 tackles and forced a fumble off the bench the next week against Michigan State, then returned to the starting lineup against Iowa as Michigan overhauled its flimsy secondary.
Troy Woolfolk moved from strong safety to cornerback, opposite Donovan Warren, and Kovacs bounced from free to strong safety and now starts alongside Williams. He also plays on most special teams.
“His rise up the depth chart was amazing,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Jordan has truly earned his way up. It didn’t necessarily have to take injuries, just performance. But he’s made the most of it. He’s proven to us that he can play.”
Kovacs had to prove it twice, actually.
A lightly recruited receiver/defensive back out of Clay High School in Oregon, Ohio, Kovacs spurned a preferred walk-on opportunity at Toledo and interest from Division 2 Hillsdale to try and follow in his father’s footsteps and make the team at Michigan.
Lou Kovacs walked on with the Wolverines in the early 1980s, and he played one game against Purdue in 1982.
“I didn’t raise him to play Michigan football, he just was exposed to it from a very early age and it’s always been a dream of his,” Lou Kovacs said. “He looked at my life and if his dad could do it then there was a possibility he could do it.”
Kovacs shined at his first walk-on tryout, a 6 a.m. session last September when he ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash. He was invited back, and while his high school film held up, his medical exam didn’t. He told trainers he had surgery on his left knee after his senior season, but still felt some discomfort.
They advised him to have another surgery, and last October doctors repaired a partial tear in Kovacs’ meniscus. He tried out again in May, and after passing his physical, made the team.
Still, Kovacs never guessed his Michigan experience would play out like this.
He figured he’d be a glorified tackling dummy for a few years, maybe eventually make a special team, and before it was all over hopefully get some “scrub time” like his dad, not Michigan's second-leading tackler who'll lead the Wolverines into battle Saturday against 13th-ranked Penn State. (3:30 p.m., ABC-TV)
“I think I expected it to be a little tougher than it actually has,” Kovacs said. “I’ve kind of come in with this mentality that I don’t really care what’s thrown at me, what happens, I’m just going to stick it out and work my butt of. It’s worked out so far.”
Dave Birkett covers University of Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.