- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 13, 2012
Jordan Kovacs is all business.
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On Tuesday of senior week, members of the media had to pry to get the fifth-year senior safety to reflect on his time with the Michigan football team. On Saturday, he’ll play at Michigan Stadium for the last time. He’ll run out of the tunnel and slap the ‘M Club’ banner for the last time.
But he’s still focused on Iowa — Saturday’s visitor who Kovacs has yet to beat in his Wolverine career.
“We’ve had struggles with them year in, year out,” Kovacs said. “They’re a tough football team, they run the ball downhill, and (James) Vandenberg is a good quarterback, so we’re going to have our hands full. Obviously you don’t want to go 0-4 or 0-5 against an opponent, so I’m hungry.”
Kovacs has had a storybook career. A high school kid from Curtis, Ohio with no Division-I offer, except to be a preferred walk-on at Toledo, tried out for the Michigan Wolverines. In his freshman season, after making the first cut, he told the trainers his knee was bothering him, and it would eventually require surgery that had him rehabbing all year — a football death sentence for somebody with no real potential.
But a year later, Kovacs started eight games in his redshirt freshman season, and over four years he grew into a captain of one of the most prestigious football institutions in the country.
And Kovacs’ ascendance in the locker room hierarchy has coincided with the turnaround of a program that lost its way for some time. During former coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure, Michigan skidded through three of the worst years in program history. Those were the first three years of Kovacs’s stint with the team.
In 2011, under coach Brady Hoke, Kovacs helped the Wolverines snap a seven-year losing streak against Ohio State and later became a Sugar Bowl champion. This season, he helped halt the four-year drought against Michigan State, and he’s in the thick of a Big Ten Championship race.
“(A season) never goes as you anticipate,” Kovacs said. “The season is always a rocky road, it’s always tough. It’s had its ups and downs, and I guess that was anticipated. … I think I’m proud of the way we’ve responded to adversity.”
Kovacs was thrust into the limelight very early in his playing career at Michigan, playing in all 12 games in his redshirt freshman season, the first being on special teams coverage against Western Michigan on Sept. 5, 2009.
Tate Forcier was the true freshman quarterback. Brandon Graham was the strong side defensive end and the senior leader of a very underwhelming defensive unit.
“The first time (I played) was against Western,” Kovacs said. “I was on special teams, kind of was not really expecting to be on special teams at that point in my career, but I was glad to be on it. Just running down the tunnel and touching the banner for the first time, everything was just surreal.”
A week later, Kovacs’s life got a bit more surreal.
After assisting on one tackle in kickoff coverage against Western Michigan, Rodriguez tapped Kovacs to start against visiting Notre Dame on Sept. 12. He recorded three tackles against the Fighting Irish, planting the seed for a long, fruitful Michigan career.
Kovacs admitted Tuesday that his goals weren’t always so lofty. His father, Lou, walked on to the Michigan football team and lettered in 1982 under coach Bo Schembechler, but he only played a few minutes of garbage time in his career. It was important that his son managed his expectations.
“At first, I just wanted to make the team, wanted to be a part of the team whatever way I could, whether it was special teams or just scout team,” Kovacs said. “And I think after the first few weeks of practice I thought, ‘You know, I could play with these guys.’ Gradually, I just set the bar higher and higher, seeing how far I could push myself.”
Since those first games, fans have grown accustomed to seeing No. 32 flying to the ball on every single play. It doesn’t matter if he’s in coverage or he’s blitzing — wherever the ball goes, he’s finishing a tackle or hustling to the ball until the whistle blows.
Now No. 11 — the program recently dubbed Kovacs the latest honoree of a Michigan Legends patch to pay tribute to the famed trio of Wistert brothers, who all donned No. 11 in their Wolverine careers — Kovacs is looking to make one last Big House memory.
“It’s been quite a ride, quite the journey,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you thought would never come to an end, but it will on Saturday.”