By any measure, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess had a successful freshman season.

Inserted into action slowly, Countess gradually found his way into a regular role, starting Michigan’s last six games. And he more than held his own, despite his inexperience. Countess’ six pass break-ups were second on the team, and he emerged as part of a cornerback duo — along with then-junior J.T. Floyd — that, like the defense as a whole, played above expectations.

The challenge for Countess, going into his second season, is to take that proverbial next step. His talent level – Countess was a consensus four-star recruit – indicates that he has the potential to become one of the better corners in the Big Ten. Considering most players make the biggest leaps from their first year to their second, it would seem 2012 could be a breakout campaign for the Owings Mills, Md. native.

Defensive backs coach Curt Mallory praised Countess’s work ethic in the offseason, noting that his progress there has carried over into the Wolverines’ fall camp. But it’s the second-year cornerback’s mentality that Mallory will be focusing on the most.

“He had some bumps (last season),” Mallory said. “As I’ve said before, when you play that position, you have to have short-term memory. When you do get beat or you do get turned around a little bit, you have to move on to the next play and not worry about that.

“That’s where he’s got to improve, and not let that one play affect the rest of the game. That’s part of maturing as a defensive back.”

Those “bumps” refer to Michigan’s final two games against Ohio State and Virginia Tech, when the team’s resurgent defense struggled more than it did most of the year.

The Wolverines’ pass defense, in particular, was subpar during those last two wins. The unit gave up an average of 190.5 yards per game through the air for the season, but allowed 235 passing yards to the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller and 214 to the Hokies’ Logan Thomas.

In those games, especially against Ohio State, Countess was victimized for a couple big plays, a sort of a rough welcome — albeit a late one, after solid play early — to big-time college football.

“I think towards the end of the season, I had a few big plays against me where I got down on myself, but my coaches did a great job of correcting me once I got to the sidelines,” Countess said.

Countess also praised the coaches for the way they “eased” him into the lineup, which he said prevented him from ever feeling the typical freshman uneasiness.

In evaluating his starting duo, Michigan coach Brady Hoke praised both Floyd’s and Countess’s consistency and toughness, but pointed to the latter as being a little more physical.

That might come as a surprise, considering Floyd is a veteran and has two inches on his younger counterpart. But the 5-foot-10 Countess has worked on his physicality, knowing that it’s biggest weapon when facing receivers taller than him, which he inevitably will have to do.

Going into spring practice, Mallory challenged Countess to use that physicality to improve on his ability to get off blocks, and the coach was pleased with the progress that the corner made in that area, again pointing to his work ethic on and off the field.

It’s his improvement and the character Countess has displayed that give Mallory, Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison faith that the sophomore can be counted upon to be a dependable presence in the backfield this season.

He’ll have to be – the transfer of junior cornerback Terrence Talbott this summer leaves just Floyd, Countess and junior Courtney Avery as the only corners with meaningful experience.

But that type of responsibility isn’t something that weighs on a player like Countess.

“It’s a fun group, good room. He fits in,” Mallory said. “He’s a very level-headed young man, comes to work every day. Does it off the field, does it in the classroom. He’s got a chance to be a very good player, as they all do, and he’s got a good group around him that do keep him level-headed. He’s been a fun guy to coach.”

Putting aside this season, Countess’ early impact as a cornerback at Michigan puts him in rare and elite company. In the past 20 years, players who earned the type of playing time he did as a freshman included Charles Woodson, Marlin Jackson and Leon Hall, all of whom ended up as All-Americans.

Pictures of them and other former Wolverine greats at the position hang in the team’s defensive back room, and Countess admitted he uses them for inspiration, particularly Woodson. But the sophomore has far to go to achieve what they achieved, and he’s not getting caught up in that type of thinking.

“I don’t know if I’m trying to avoid (comparisons), but I have to focus on me,” Countess said. “I look at Charles Woodson, he’s a great role model, someone to model yourself after, but I have to worry about Blake. I have to worry about Team 133.”

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