Walk-ons enjoy prominent roles on Michigan football team
Michigan's defensive coaches kept coming up to him on the sideline.
"Are you ready?" they asked.
But he was a walk-on, and this was the Notre Dame game.
Still, the leg cramp that was bothering Williams wouldn't go away.
"I blew them off, saying I'd be ready (but) thinking there was no way I was going to get in the game," Kovacs said. "Next thing I knew I was playing in front of 110,000 people at the Big House on national TV."
And contributing at crunch time. Kovacs made three tackles in Michigan's come-from-behind 38-34 win on Sept. 12.
The redshirt freshman from Curtice, Ohio, is one of a number of either current or former walk-ons who are seeing significant playing time for the undefeated and 22nd-ranked Wolverines this season.
That's just fine with coach Rich Rodriguez, who walked on at West Virginia in the early 1980s, around the same time Kovacs' dad was a walk-on under coach Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
Top scholarship athletes from across the nation have been coming to Ann Arbor for decades, lured by the winning tradition, winged helmet and six-digit crowds at Michigan Stadium. Rodriguez's starting 11 on offense alone boasts former prep stars from California and Washington on one coast to Florida and South Carolina on the other.
Despite its reputation as a destination for blue-chip athletes, Michigan also wants to be known as a place where hardworking overachievers hoping for the chance to prove themselves can make the team — and thrive.
"The best guys play," Rodriguez said. "Whether you come out with a four-star or five-star ranking, or whether you're a school-start or tryout walk-on guy, if you're good enough and you prove yourself, you'll play."
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jon Conover, who has seen action in all four Michigan games on special teams, falls into the "former walk-on" category, having earned a scholarship before the season.
Conover, a political science major from suburban Detroit with a 3.5 grade point average, is forgoing his final year of eligibility so he can head to law school.
Because it's Conover's last season with the program, Rodriguez invited him to join the seniors at a preseason get-together at the coach's home.
When the festivities were over and the players were filing out, Rodriguez asked Conover to hang back so he could deliver the good news.
"It was emotional. Not only was I happy for myself — this is obviously a huge goal I'd been chasing since I enrolled here — but it was great for my family as my sister is now enrolled in college. That'll take some pressure off my parents for her education," said Conover, whose immediate reaction was to hug Rodriguez and the coach's wife, Rita.
"You could tell it was one of his goals. ... I told (Rita) afterward, 'It doesn't get any better than that in coaching,'" Rodriguez said.
The coach walked on at West Virginia when Don Nehlen was the coach, but only could afford to attend the school for about a year and a half. One day during his sophomore year, Nehlen approached Rodriguez and told him he'd earned a scholarship.
"You can remember that time like it was yesterday," Rodriguez said. "I (thought), 'Man, I've proved something.'
"Now, I tell the same thing to our kids. I say, 'Boy, you've proved something. Now, I don't want this to be the end-all. I want you to keep proving yourself.' And all the kids want to do that anyway, so it's pretty neat."
Michigan isn't alone in supporting a strong walk-on program with a number of schools getting production from non-scholarship players.
Nebraska's dates to the Bob Devaney era of the 1960s and was ramped up under Tom Osborne in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. At one time, the team had 75 to 80 walk-ons, most of them small-town Nebraska kids who grew up dreaming of becoming a Cornhusker. In all, more than two dozen former Nebraska walk-ons have played in the NFL.
After Osborne's successor, Frank Solich, was fired in 2003, Bill Callahan de-emphasized the walk-on program. Current coach Bo Pelini has revived it, though his staff generally only takes invited walk-ons.
Michigan also brings in what are known as "preferred walk-ons," but Rodriguez, at the start of each fall term, also invites any student in good standing to show up and try out for the team.
Kovacs showed up for last year's student-body tryout and impressed the coaches enough to get a second look.
Going into this season, "I thought, 'Walk-ons don't play too much at big programs.' I figured my role was going to be on the scout team and to give the starters a good week (of practice)," he said. "Next thing I know I'm a back-up free safety and playing on special teams."