From walk-on to most consistent defender, Kovacs is living his dream

Sam Wolson/Daily
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Daily Sports Writer
Published September 22, 2010

It seemed fitting that, on the day Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez cracked jokes inviting any athletic male students to walk onto the football team as a kicker, a walk-on made headlines.

Redshirt sophomore safety Jordan Kovacs led the Michigan defense with 11 tackles and a forced fumble last Saturday in a win over Massachusetts. He’s started all three games this season, and he’s been one of the few bright spots in the Wolverine secondary so far.

Two years ago, Kovacs could only dream of playing — let alone starting — for the Michigan football team.

His father, Lou, had walked on at Michigan in the early 1980s and appeared in one game in 1982. Kovacs had opportunities to play elsewhere, including a preferred opportunity at Toledo, but he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He’d been asked back after initial tryouts during his freshman year, but Kovacs needed to undergo surgery on his knee before he could continue with the walk-on process. Last January, he tried out again and Rodriguez invited him back.

“It’s amazing that Coach Rod gives guys opportunities,” Kovacs said Monday. “I’m sure there are plenty of other guys on campus just like me who always dreamed of wearing the winged helmet. It’s a neat experience. Not many people think, ‘Oh, I can play at Michigan,’ but you never know until you try it.”

Kovacs reflected on his first practice, a day that made his head spin. He said he had no clue where he was supposed to be or what he was supposed to do. So he took Rodriguez’s advice: If you don’t know where you’re supposed to be, run in place.

“I did that a few times,” Kovacs said.

From the first minute of that practice to now, Kovacs used practice as an opportunity to impress coaches and somehow get some playing time. Now, with a year of experience (eight starts at safety) under his belt, he’s turned into one of the Wolverines’ leaders on defense.

“He’s been one of our most consistent defenders,” Rodriguez said on a teleconference Wednesday. “He’s a very smart guy. He’s physical. … He really understands our defense, and I think he’ll keep getting better and better.”

Kovacs said that understanding makes him more comfortable with his role within the defense. His status on the team has changed this fall, too.

Rodriguez told Kovacs a few days into August camp that the walk-on would be getting a scholarship, a moment that Kovacs can’t recall without smiling.

“That moment, where you can pull a young man into your office or see him in a hallway, whenever you tell them, you’re just so happy for him,” Rodriguez said. “You know that’s one of their goals. They know they’ve earned it when they get one.”

He has the playing time and the scholarship now, and Kovacs gets some of the other perks of being a Michigan football player, too — autographs included.

“It is weird because I just look at myself as just another guy and I don't really understand why people would want my autograph,” Kovacs said.

Kovacs can’t always figure out when he’s recognized, either. He laughed when telling a story about a woman coming up to him during a shopping trip at Kroger in his hometown, Curtice, Ohio.

“I was wearing some Michigan stuff, and some lady came up to me and said, ‘Hey, is your name Jacob?’ ” Kovacs said. “I said no, and I walked away. My mom was with me, and she was like, ‘I think she was looking for you because she was wearing all Michigan (clothing).’ ”

First-name slipups aside, it's still not bad for someone who wasn't on Michigan’s roster two years ago. That part of the story — how special his roster spot is — is not lost on Kovacs. And that’s what drives him each day in practice and in each game.

“I (try to remind myself) how lucky I am every day,” Kovacs said. “Some days, you're going to practice and it's like, 'Oh, God, practice', but I try to stop and look around and look at the helmet I'm putting on. This is the winged helmet. This is what I have dreamed of.”