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Posted on Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Can Michigan persevere at Iowa while playing 5 freshmen on defense?

By Kyle Meinke


Freshman cornerback Blake Countess, shown tackling Minnesota's Da'Jon McKnight, has earned a starting berth in the Michigan lineup.

Melanie Maxwell |

Michigan football coach Brady Hoke said he's never competed for a championship with so many freshmen playing pivotal roles on defense.

That's about to change, he hopes.

The 13th-ranked Wolverines (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) rose into a three-way tie atop the Legends Division last weekend after a 36-14 win against Purdue. They did it despite starting three freshmen on defense and two more playing reserve roles.

That's a lot of inexperience, especially considering junior safety Jordan Kovacs, a veteran leader, did not play due to a knee injury.

Hoke's not concerned, though.

"The best players have to play," he said. "If we don’t play the best players, no matter who they are, where they’re from, what age they are, then we’re cheating the program. We’re not going to cheat the program.”

Cornerback Blake Countess might be the best example of that.

The 18-year-old from Baltimore has played well since beginning to ease into the rotation against Eastern Michigan. As his role has grown, so has the hype surrounding him. Eventually, he displaced a fifth-year senior, Troy Woolfolk, who has moved to safety.

In his first start against Purdue, Countess made just three tackles — not because he missed tackles, but because he was targeted so infrequently. That's the mark of a good corner, especially one who is a freshman.

"Other teams will try to pick on a freshman, especially in the secondary, because of how exposed they can be, especially in a man coverage," senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said. "I don’t think anybody’s really been trying Blake. They’ve maybe given him once or twice, where they try him out, but he’s been consistent.

"That’s one thing you look for in a freshman. He can make the big play, but can he be consistent?"

Michigan is about to find out, as it travels to Iowa on Saturday for a noon game on ESPN. The Wolverines have struggled in recent years at Kinnick Stadium, including a 30-28 loss in their last trip there in 2009.

Now, they'll take on the Hawkeyes with a cadre of freshmen — including two of whom are linebackers. That could be a tricky test for Michigan, as Iowa tailback Marcus Coker ran 32 times for 252 yards and two touchdowns last week in a loss at Minnesota.


Freshman Jake Ryan played well against Purdue.

Melanie Maxwell |

Hoke thinks Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan will be ready for the challenge.

Both played well against Purdue. Morgan led the team with nine tackles and Ryan came up with a huge fourth-quarter tackle-for-loss that led to a goal-line stand.

“What I like best about them is that they’re football players," Hoke said in a nod to the players' physicality, toughness and improving fundamentals.

It was Morgan's first start since the Notre Dame game, when he was forced into duty due to an injury to then-starter Brandon Herron. He played badly, though, and junior Brandin Hawthorne started the next five games.

Turns out, though, Morgan was dealing with the effects of a hamstring injury. He had been one of the standouts during fall camp, Hoke said, but then was set back by the injury.

Morgan is healthy now, and the staff seems committed to him.

"I think he’s a very instinctive linebacker," Hoke said. "I think he plays downhill well. I think he also, for a young guy, is grasping the defense more conceptually, and also the opponent and studying the offense."

Besides the three freshmen starters, defensive end Frank Clark and linebacker Brennen Beyer also have played a reserve role on the defense.

Meantime, Woolfolk has permanently moved to safety (regardless of the health of Kovacs), and started his first game there against Purdue.

So, that's three freshmen and a new safety. Michigan seems to really be testing the bend-but-don't-break nature of its defense, which is ranked No. 6 in points allowed per game (14.6).

Hoke said senior leadership will play an important role in weathering the storm.

"(The upperclassmen are) doing a great job since the day the kids got here in the summer," Hoke said. "A lot of freshmen hit the wall, sometimes. So far, these guys have been able to persevere and keep learning and getting better."

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


1st Down

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 12:05 a.m.

I always love to read Ryan Van Bergen's comments. He is probably the most insightful and analytical player on the team...someday if he wants it, he can be a great coach.

Terry Star21

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 12:45 a.m.

Agree...and I especially enjoy after the Monday press conference when the quote Hoke then Van Bergen - too cool !

Terry Star21

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 6 p.m.

As good as our veterans are, I always think the freshman and younger guys bring a fresh exciting (different type) energy to the team - and I welcome this and support Hoke when he says 'we're going to play the best players'. As far as the comedians, the non-Michigan Faithful using this board to show idiot comments and poems and lame excuses of offense winning games not defense - hey, we tried that remember, and for three years we we're the laughing stock of the nation. Even now it continues, as someone has put out a book to remind us of that nightmare. MgoBlueForTiM........a first place team moving forward and looking back...

Terry Star21

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 6:13 p.m.

Sorry, meant - 'looking forward' (not - 'back').


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 5:09 p.m.

Nice to see these five kids can step in. But too bad that four are true freshman and their red shirts had to be burned.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 4:13 p.m.

Okay kids altogether now!!!! There once was this guy that I Know!! There once was this guy that I know!!! Claimed allegiance to Feilding and Bo!! Claimed allegiance to Feilding and Bo!!! And the man crush continues to grow!! And the man crush continues to grow!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEANchigan football will roar with the young guns!! As THEO and the MCC get a spankin on their buns!!!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 4:03 p.m.

I'm glad Hoke didn't listen to all those who said RR left the team bereft of talent and that the players RR recruited aren't the right type of players for the big ten. They were all 3 or 4 star recruits, so they have football talent.

Terry Star21

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 12:49 a.m.

Very nice Don - and so true !


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 4:44 p.m.

My responses: o Yes, the players RR recruited had general football talent o The players were, generally speaking, undersized for the Big 10. You can see how Hoke is addressing that in the 2012 commit list. o The distribution of players was uneven -- heavy on receivers and running backs; generally weak on the defensive side of the ball; general lack of focus on offensive and defensive line. o Hoke chose to work with what he had rather than complain, which is a credit to him. o Hoke and staff are coaching the given talent to a level the previous staff could not or would not do.

Lorain Steelmen

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 3:51 p.m.

Wow, chiro19. Sounds like you have a fix on the Hawkeyes. I'm counting on those guys to knock off the spartans in a week or so. Meanwhile, UM would be real smart to take everyone seriously. I'm looking for a real dog fight.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 4:03 p.m.

I'm with you, LS ... I don't expect this to be a cake walk. I think it *is* a winnable game for Michigan, but it's going to require Michigan to focus and play some pretty sound football.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 3:39 p.m.

The Wolverines may yet lose 2 games. I don't think Iowa will be one of those. Go Blue!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 3:32 p.m.

Dear Theo -- there is more drama in a close defensive battle than a wild offensive shootout.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 3:03 p.m.

"Can Michigan persevere at Iowa while playing 5 freshmen on defense?" Yes, if they play solid, mistake-free football. The talent is there, but it's raw and prone to mistakes. My dear, dear Theo ... you want to see what "crystal" football looks like? Tune in to CBS at 8:00pm ET. You'll see some terrific athletes doing battle. And you'll be hard-pressed to see anything that resembles the style of football you worship in your "King." You'll see speed, yes; but it's speed combined with size and strength.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 2:21 p.m.

Wait a second.... Weren't we told that the reason for the defensive failures the last three seasons was due to the over abundance of freshmen starters? Hmmmm.... Seems the current coaching staff never got that memo.


Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 5:32 a.m.

Oh, they got the memo. Except failure is not an option for Hoke and company. Any athlete not buying into the new mantra will soon pack their bags.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 3:05 p.m.

The current coaching staff is too busy getting the most out of its players. The previous staff was too busy doing ... er ... what exactly did they do? I mean, other than demonstrate incompetence and near ruin this program?


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 2:20 p.m.

These guys that are freshman really are not being left out on a island except for Countess. The thing is he is prepared and use to that being a corner. The other two that are consistantly playing are part of a good unit and not singled out. As for Frank and Beyer, they only typically play during the last part of the game in blow out games. The only way this game stays within 14 is if the oline and dline dont show up. I fully expect them to. So how does Iowa stop michigans running game? How does Iowa score on michigan with consistant pressure on a young qb? The only thing that will make this game close is the weather, and that has changed to a little less windy and 10% chance of rain instead of 40-50% plus it is suppose to be in the mid 50's not the low 40's. Iowa really should be 4-4 with a crazy come back against Pitt. Like I have said in the past, I watch Iowa every week since I live in Iowa now and my wife is a hawks fan. They are slow and small this year compared to the past. Their LB's and DL are not even close to as good as previous years. They had 3 DL go to the NFL and one LB and one safety last year. Now they are starting a DL that averages 268 lbs and a LB core that averages 225 lbs. Mich. lbs are 228 and DL is 281 lbs. Its not a huge difference but it is enough and this is definately a rebuilding year for Iowa. It should be a fun game to watch! Go Blue!!!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 2:04 p.m.

Although Clark is currently listed on the depth chart as a DE, at only 228 pounds (but with tremendous speed) one would think his future will be as a linebacker. Regardless, the experience these five are getting AND playing well while doing so bode well for the D of the near future. Now if we can only get some humungous -- yet blazingly fast -- defensive line commits... GO BLUE!!!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 1:30 p.m.

Come on Mlive, Quit trying to make this into an interesting match-up! Iowa is horrid and they just lost to a team that's ............ Minnesota. We know the game will be out of hand early, and i fully expect to be sound asleep by halftime, Bored by the competition. So enough with the "Keys to the game" articles, all we have to do to win this game is to show up. If i sound kinda punchy, its because Michigan has only played 2 decent teams all year, and im getting frustrated waiting around for a good game to watch.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 2:22 p.m.

Iowa lost to Minnesota last year, too. Didn't stop them from beating Michigan by double digits in the Big House. You may be asleep at the half, but you'll most likely miss a very tight last 2 qtrs. This will be Michigan's toughest test to date, imo, and just "showing up" ain't gonna get it done.

Theo's Brother

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:41 p.m.

Defense, defense is the key. Without Hoke (and Greg) where would we be? We block and tackle Their "O" we shackle After our King let them run free. - Theo's wayward Brother '11 P.S. Theo, pick up some milk on the way home from work today! :-)

1st Down

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 12:08 a.m.

me thinks you should disown Theo as your brother


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 6:42 p.m.

Theo.. Might that top secret location be at the CBS studios?


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 4:15 p.m.

Okay kids altogether now!!!! There once was this guy that I Know!! There once was this guy that I know!!! Claimed allegiance to Feilding and Bo!! Claimed allegiance to Feilding and Bo!!! And the man crush continues to grow!! And the man crush continues to grow!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEANchigan football will roar with the young guns!! As THEO and the MCC get a spankin on their buns!!!

Theo's Brother

Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:58 p.m.

10-4 bro. See you at home.


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:52 p.m.

Sorry, bro. Have sis do it. I have an MCC meeting (top secret location).


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:40 p.m.

my bucks win titel


Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 3:39 a.m.

You forgot the question mark at the end!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:29 p.m.

November Five, Keep Hope Alive Come noon on Saturday we'll be snoring; Defensive battles sure are boring. Our title hopes are all but dead; Unless on defense we run The Spread. Zip around with lightning speed; Then we'll win. We will indeed. O King, O King, to thou we're true: We Men of Maize, We Men of Blue. -Theo Lime Kelly '11

1st Down

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 : 12:07 a.m.

log on spout off nonsense vote yourself up log off clear your browser cookies repeat ad nauseam


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 12:21 p.m.

I'm very encouraged looking into the future. With blooming freshman this year and the great class coming in next year - embarrassing defenses look to be a thing of the past at Michigan. YES!!!


Tue, Nov 1, 2011 : 11:59 a.m.

The freshmen have shown very good results. Blake Countess has a very bright future as a Wolverine. Jake Ryan looked good way back in the Spring game and is no suprise. The freshman are doing so well because of the excellent coaching they are recieving. This bodes well not only for the next game but the rest of the season. The IA tailback Marcus Coker had a great day againt the poor MN defense. The Michigan tailbacks also had a very good day as well when we faced MN. Although the Wolverine defense is not the greatest at stopping the run, they have improved. Stopping or slowing down Coker will be a good test and will be the key in us winning the game in Iowa City. GO BLUE!!!