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Posted on Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Blake Countess pulls even with Troy Woolfolk in one of 6 position battles on Michigan football team

By Kyle Meinke


Freshman cornerback Blake Countess (18) has continued to take snaps from senior Troy Woolfolk. That's the most hotly contested of six position battles to watch as Michigan prepares for for its final five games.

Melanie Maxwell |

Brady Hoke has a dilemma.

On one hand, the Michigan football coach has a senior cornerback in Troy Woolfolk, a well-liked and outspoken team leader who battled earnestly for a year to get back on the field after a gruesome leg and ankle injury.

On the other hand, he has a freshman who is playing better.

Blake Countess has been stellar since getting his first action on defense against San Diego State. The recently-turned 18-year-old quickly asserted himself as one of the Wolverines' most talented corners, despite his inexperience.

In return, his playing time has grown in recent weeks -- and with junior cornerback J.T. Floyd playing well, those snaps have come at the expense of Woolfolk, the veteran who has lost a step since hurting his ankle in the opener against Western Michigan.

On the first series of Michigan's 28-14 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, Woolfolk was badly beaten on a deep route -- saved only by a dropped pass in the end zone -- and took two bad routes to ball carriers. He was pulled in favor of Countess and did not return.

Hoke has been asked about Countess each week since his debut against the Aztecs. For the first time this year, though, Hoke acknowledged on Monday that the freshman is pushing Woolfolk.

"I don’t know if anybody passed anybody, but I do know there’s great competition there," Hoke said. "I think that will make both those guys better players."

Hoke likely won't be much more definitive than that, out of deference to Woolfolk and his career at Michigan. But, there's no question who is playing better right now.

Countess is fourth on the team in tackles (24) despite playing defense in only four games. He's been stout in the running game, and shown superior closing speed and athleticism in the passing game. His instincts have been sharp.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has been familiar with Countess for a long time because Countess grew up in the Baltimore area and Mattison coached the Ravens the past three seasons.

He said he wants to see more from Countess before lauding him in the media, but does know one thing about him: He has great maturity for a freshman, and a good handle on the mental aspects of playing the position.

"All I know is that when he’s gone in there, he’s played without a conscience," he said recently, "and I think when you’re a corner you have to play that way.

"You’re out there in front of 110,000 people, and everybody knows if you don’t do something right. They don’t know if (defensive tackle) Mike Martin doesn’t do his job, but they know if that guy doesn’t.

"I think he has that ‘it’ factor (where he thinks), ‘OK, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to do what you tell me to do, and if it doesn’t go right, then I’m going to come back the next play.’ You can’t have a secondary guy, that if he makes a mistake, his head goes down."

The 5-foot-10, 176-pound freshman already has begun impressing his veteran teammates, with one comparing him to a former Michigan great.

"As a true freshman, sometimes guys get those wide eyes when they come onto the field," senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said recently. "But he reminds me of a guy like Donovan Warren when he first came in. He's very focused, he has a swagger about him and he's very confident."

Countess' role likely will continue to expand at the expense of Woolfolk. At this rate, he might be the starter sooner rather than later.

This will be Michigan's most hotly contested position battle of the coming weeks. Others to keep an eye on:


Fitz Toussaint leads Michigan tailbacks in carries (51), yards (253) and touchdowns (two).

Angela J. Cesere |

Vincent Smith vs.
Fitz Toussasint

Most likely, no one wins this one, but competition certainly exists between these two at running back.

Toussaint, a sophomore, has started five of seven games and leads the tailbacks in carries (51), yards (253) and touchdowns (two). He's a bruising back, in the mold preferred by Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges.

But Smith, a junior, just won't go away. His elusive running style has made him a viable option for Michigan, and he's scored some of the team's most meaningful touchdowns, including a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame game.

He's the team's best blocker, and is much better than Toussaint on screens, which Michigan could employ more of down the stretch to get quarterback Denard Robinson going in the passing game.

Each has a role in the offense, so expect this battle to persist throughout the season.


Will Jake Ryan (90) be displaced at the strong-side linebacker spot as projected starter Cam Gordon heals?

Melanie Maxwell |

Jake Ryan vs. Cam Gordon

This battle at strong-side linebacker has been latent, with Gordon out because of a balky back. The sophomore has yet to play on defense this year, although he made his season debut last week on kick return, signaling he's getting close.

But will he displace Ryan?

The redshirt freshman has started every game this year (except when Michigan happened to open in a nickel package) for Gordon. He's had issues in the rushing game, especially in edge containment, but he's also made several big plays this year.

Ryan has four tackles for loss — second most on the team — recovered two fumbles and he deflected a pass in the opener that was intercepted by Brandon Herron and returned for a touchdown.

Overall, Ryan's been one of Michigan's most pleasant surprises.

He's is a gifted player with a bright future, but Gordon has more experience and has remained the starter on the depth chart throughout his battle with injury. It should be an interesting decision for Hoke when Gordon becomes healthy enough to play.


Brandin Hawthorne (7) was pulled for freshman Desmond Morgan against Michigan State.

Melanie Maxwell |

Brandin Hawthorne vs. Desmond Morgan

Hawthorne, a junior, has been the primary player at weak-side linebacker since coming on strong against Notre Dame. He's recorded 36 tackles, fourth most on the team.

He also was pulled for Morgan, a freshman, after a series of bad plays against Michigan State.

Morgan has not been good this year, playing only sparingly since he was lit up in his only start against Notre Dame. So, if he was a better option against Michigan State, that means either Morgan has progressed this season or Hawthorne has regressed. Or maybe a little both.

Don't expect to see one of these guys pull away. It could be a back-and-forth thing from here on out.

Ricky Barnum vs. Michael Schofield

Barnum was the unquestioned starter at left guard when the season began, but has started only three-of-seven games because of a one-game suspension to begin the season, then an ankle injury that has kept him out of the past three.

Meantime, Schofield has held his own in his place. He was chewed up, as all the offensive linemen were, against Michigan State, but has otherwise shown himself to be a viable option for the Wolverines if Barnum can't get healthy.

Barnum dressed and traveled for Michigan State, which means he probably is getting close. He may return against Purdue, but he'll have Schofield on his heels.

Otherwise, another option for when Barnum returns could be to slide Schofield to the right side. That half of the line has struggled badly in recent weeks, and Schofield might be an improvement. After the disaster up front against the Spartans, Michigan surely will try anything to find a group that works.


A position battle at quarterback? Maybe not, but Devin Gardner's role has grown each week since the Minnesota game.

Melanie Maxwell |

Denard Robinson vs.
Devin Garnder

Hoke already has affirmed Robinson is his starter at quarterback, and there's no question the junior provides Michigan with the best chance to win right now. He's the starter, period.

At the same time, Gardner's role in the offense has grown each week since the Minnesota game. He's received snaps with Robinson on the field at either tailback or receiver, but also with him on the sideline — injured or otherwise.

What does this mean?

It means Garnder has a place in this offense. It means the coaching staff thinks he's one of the 11 best offensive players, and that he brings something to the table Robinson doesn't.

Specifically, Hoke said he had more faith in Gardner's arm against Michigan State. That speaks volumes, and indicates the sophomore will continue to be featured in the offense, even though Robinson is cemented as the starter. Expect to see both on the field as well, as it provides difficult matchups for opponents because they must account for Robinson's every move.

There won't be a dual-quarterback system, but there's also fluidity at the position, and the quarterbacks make the list because of that uncertainty. Robinson's not fighting for his job, but he is fighting off Gardner's push for an expanded role. This will be one of the most intriguing — and scrutinized — story lines of the final five games.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1 a.m.

Barring injury, Countess is going to be great for three years to come. Ryan is also going to get better every year. Next year who knows what will happen with Robinson and Gardner- but they'll both be on the field in one capacity or another. The only area that is going to take a few years to get back to dominate is in the trenches. Can't wait for Kalis, Magnuson and Bahr to arrive on the offensive side(three great recruits). Strobel, Pipkins and Brown on the defensive side. Back to Michigan football fully by 2013. National championship by 2014 or 2015! Maybe. Beating MSU and OSU? Absolutley.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 3:45 p.m.

Like others have said, this article is well-done. I long for the days when the best athletes are playing the positions that best fit their attributes. When Countess is our starting corner (Woolfolk is more of a safety) and Devin is our starting quarterback (Denard is more of a slot receiver). I know it sounds harsh, but I long for the time when Denard gets pulled, for good, and we put a someone in his place who better fits the position - for good. Its all about fit between man and environment. Which is something some dude named Darwin taught us long ago. 'Ol Chuck could have been thinking about this Michigan football team on his daily walks around his garden, especially with the UM-MSU game as data, and come up with the same theory.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:53 p.m.

And seriously, are you Mr. Bacon the author? I jsut want to know before I consider buying a book from someone who uses the logic you do and makes the sort of arguments you do. Thanks.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:50 p.m.

You left out half of my argument. Those guys didnt crumble against better opponents. They had running backs to take a large share of the yards. And Hoke and Borges work with what they have. Dont think for a second that they would not rather have a traditional pocket passer, such as Henne. Every heard of a recruit named Shane Morris? Ever wondered just why they are working Devin into the rotation more and more? Keep cherry picking away.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:12 p.m.

Brief addition - those were passing yards I cited. WHich I think is perhaps the most meaningful stat when comparing about quarterbacks, along with interceptions. So, I just found on Mgoblue that Denard is #5 all time for interceptions thrown at Michigan. And that's after those mere 1.5 years that you like to harp on Mr. Bacon. The order is Henne, Leach, Smith, Navarre and Grback (tied), Robinson. And all of those other guys played for 4 years. Any more stats we should discuss?


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 10:50 p.m.

Um, you can't be the real John U. Bacon, because you show a real lack of understanding of Michigan football. Henne has 9715 total yards, Denard has 4011. Denard might be in the top 10, but he is #10 (at the margin). More importantly, he is the only dual-thread QB in that list. All of the other QBs shared a lot of running duties with other guys who run the ball, you know, running backs. Denard doesn't. So his numbers are inflated, and comparing him to Henne, Brady, Griese, and Harbaugh is comparing apples to oranges. ALso, you fail to consider production over the course of a season. Henne, Grbac, Harbaugh, Brady, Griese accumulated their numbers facing tough Big Ten opponents. They weren't known to fail when facing a team with a pulse. So comparing just numbers is not a good argument, and I would expect more out of Mr. Bacon (is this the sort of logic you use when you write your books?). But let's go ahead and explore the numbers even more. Denard's passing rank right now is 71. He is nearly leading (not in the good way) the country in interceptions thrown - only the QB for CMU has more interceptions than Denard has (11 vs 10). Oh, but he is #16 in rushing. Hmmm, I wonder if being #71 in passing, #2 in interceptions thrown, BUT #16 in rushing means he might be in the wrong position. Hmmmm.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 10:49 p.m.

@ John Bacon.. You are absolutely right. Denard is NOT a slot receiver. But Denard SHOULD be a slot receiver.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 1:52 p.m.

Fitz ToussaInt cannot be categorized as "bruising", I don't think. All of Michigan's RBs getting meaningful time are smallish. There is no one with thick powerful thighs a la MSUs backs, or an Ingrahm when at Alabama. All can be dropped wih an arm tackle. Fitz is clearly bigger than Vince but I have never heard any Michigan fan even hint that Fitz is "bruising". It's very telling that on all the fourth and one situations the ball is put into Denard's hands because we don't have a true bruising fullback that's going to bust through an arm tackle and carry forward two or three yards. Good info on Blake. I can't tell too much from TV angles but he sure does look to have the best coverage instincts and skills of any DB in several years.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 12:25 p.m.

Another Nice Article Kyle. Blake Countess' HS youtube highlight film is awesome, check it out, he seems to be a stud at corner. This team is better off with 3 RB's instead of one because each one has different styles which makes it hard for the defense to check them all. Against NW when Fitz and Smith were checked, Shaw's style worked in that game. Denard gives you awesome offense in running, no doubt make him run and you make the best option to win. That is in running only lol. In passing, he is a disaster waiting to happen and he gives you the option to implode at anytime lol in fact, he just made MSU's score from 21 to 28 points without Cousins taking a snap, it was Denard that help UM to lose that one. A veteran 20 game starter QB should be careful with the ball and not throw it away. How many more careless interceptions will that guy have before it is all said than done? Last year he just beat Indiana and Purdue, (Tate finished the Illinois game), against Big Ten teams with decent defenses, he implodes and takes the team with his implosions like in the MSU game (14 points only and he gave MSU 7 points). lol


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 9:06 p.m.

Borges spoke about this topic this week. In essence he says that any QB in the first year of learning the offense has to go through a series of difficult progressions. Denard is going through these now, he is making progress (even if that is not apparent to some of us), and will be "much better" next year. So the answer is that Denard is and will remain the starting QB. At various points in any given game Gardner may (probably will) see some playing time, but the coaches are going with Denard and plan to find ways to win this year while Denard matures. I imagine that if Michigan runs up a huge margin Gardner will get plenty of playing time, but otherwise we'll see him sporadically. If you accept that Borges knows what he is talking about, that also means that a switch to Gardner means he has to go through the same progression that Denard has been through to get to a similar point. This would be during the tougher part of the season.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 6:26 p.m.

@chiro19.... Denard seems to do a pretty good job at passing when he's under no pressure. As soon as the D is bearing down on him, he has trouble making smart decisions with the ball. Probably why he historically tucked the ball and ran with it. I doubt that he will ever be a smart, accurate passer under pressure, and in the B1G, you gotta think quick. Especially when bigger D-lines are blowing up our O-line. Every other team in the conference knows how to defend against Michigan. Regretfully, the better ones will be successful. Not sure, at this point, if Devin would fair any better under pressure. Next week would be a good game to give him more snaps, though.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 2:37 p.m.

My take on the Denard vs. Devin thing is this. Michigan can not win if Denard plays any more games like he did against MSU. So if he does he will get benched. I think Hoke is not concerned about Denards past in regards to his success running. He simply is concerned with putting the best players on the field that will give them the best chance to win. Denard needs to learn how to throw within the next 3 weeks or he will probably not start after the Iowa game. Is it just me or does he literally look like he is closing his eyes when he throws the ball on a lot of his passes?! The biggest thing is I dont think Denard has a clue how to read defensive coverages. He does not know where weak spots in zones are or when a blitz is coming off the edge and to pass into it. In a way I feel bad for Denard because of the situation he is in. He is simply not a QB and yet he is forced into playing one. I think he should be a return man and slot receiver like a Steve Breaston (who by the way was a highschool QB but did not translate into college). Blake is a no brainer and I predicted this earlier in the year. Blake Countess, Jake Ryan, and Brinks would be All Americans in 3-4 years (Brinks may be a stretch). Woolfolk either tries to tackle you with his head or tries to finger tackle you. Plus he gets beat deep most times.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 12:53 p.m.

"Last year he just beat Indiana and Purdue, (Tate finished the Illinois game" One player is not a team and players do not have records He did not "just beat" anyone, the team did ... or did Denard give up like a 1000 yards of offesne and a zillion points to the Hoosiers ... Do I need to quote Bo? The Team The Team The Team


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:25 a.m.

This is a win-win situation in all of the above match ups. The level of play will be elevated. The Denard passing ability story has been on going for the majority of this season and unless, he becomes consistently accurate, the story will be on going. The bottom line is about the success of the Michigan football program. It is about who can give this team the best chance of winning games. More importantly, it about THE TEAM! THE TEAM! THE TEAM! GO BLUE!!


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 4:17 p.m.

Here I was reading this article and knowing right away what my comment would be... Lo and behold. The first comment said everything I was thinking.'re a genius! You got my vote.