Gameday: Wolverines safety takes long road to Michigan football

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

Jordan Kovacs would have been ecstatic to be playing on Michigan’s special teams units by his junior season. Instead, he was out there on day one of his redshirt freshman year and is now a four-year starter on defense.

“I expected to contribute on scout defense, and I had the mindset I would make the team better any way it took,” Kovacs said. “I would be crazy to tell you that I came in here expecting to start for four straight years because that’s not anything that I expected, but it’s worked out that way, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The Michigan safety’s unique path to get the opportunity to play for the Wolverines is almost too good to be true. Only two programs seriously considered him coming out of high school: Division II Hillsdale, which bowed out before he even got a chance to apply to the school, and Toledo, which Kovacs said was only interested in him because his high school coach asked them to continue pursuing him.

Kovacs had applied to Michigan but was placed on the waitlist, so his father Lou, a former walk-on at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, put in a call to Brad Labadie, who was the director of Michigan’s football operations in 2008, to see what could be done. Labadie made no promises, but he agreed to look at the highlight tape Lou had crafted.

“I’m first and foremost so passionate about Michigan football,” Jordan Kovacs said. “If they didn’t want me, I was passionate enough about football to go from there.”

That’s exactly what happened in June 2008 when Kovacs was set to graduate from Clay High School about 13 miles outside of Toledo, Ohio. With time running out before summer conditioning started, Kovacs decided to accept a preferred walk-on position at Toledo and become a member of the Rockets.

And then Lou got a phone call from Labadie that would change Jordan’s life: He would be given the opportunity to try out for the Wolverines. Although his father asked him to mull the decision over for a couple of days, Kovacs instantly called his mother and told her he was going to Michigan.

A knee injury prevented Kovacs from participating during his freshman season in 2008, but he came back to make the squad for his redshirt freshman campaign the following year. He slowly worked his way up the depth chart in offseason and preseason practices, and on Sept. 5, 2009, Kovacs was out there on special teams when Michigan took on Western Michigan in the season opener.

“That was one of the funnest games of my life,” Kovacs said. “Running down on special teams in the Big House with the winged helmet, the fans were going crazy. It was an awesome game, and I remember leaving and I was excited. I didn’t know where it was going to go from there.”

Kovacs was a part of the defense by the next week, and he played in all 12 games during his redshirt freshman campaign, earning eight starts at safety. He received his scholarship before the 2010 season and continued to contribute to the Wolverines, finishing second in the Big Ten with 116 tackles while earning All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media.

“He’s one of those guys that’s self-motivated,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “He has a passion for the game and his instincts in playing the game. What (former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr) wanted was football players, at the end of the day what you see on tape, and that’s what (Kovacs) has.”

Kovacs’ story touches many individuals on the Wolverines’ football team. Hoke said he wouldn’t call the safety an inspiration but rather an example to the rest of the team of how to work. The journey has earned Kovacs a lot of respect on the team, including from its star quarterback, Denard Robinson.

The flashy quarterback could not stop raving about his teammate and how much he means to the program. He said he wants to try to emulate Kovacs’ work ethic to make sure he pushes himself to be the best he can possibly be.

“When you see guys like that, that want to be on the team, that want to make a difference, that’s something that motivates me,” Robinson said. “When I wake up and look at him, I’m like, ‘Man, he pushed it to the limit,’ and that’s what I want to do every time I step on the field.”

Throughout his career in Ann Arbor, Kovacs has learned a lot about football, but when asked about what he learned about himself, he struggled to answer.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Kovacs said. “I’ve definitely struggled, but I’ve learned to remain confident in myself and my abilities, and from a football standpoint, just to work hard and good things will happen.”