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August 13, 2013Michigan defensive backs coach Curt Mallory can remember the play on which Blake Countess - then a promising sophomore cornerback - suffered a season-ending injury.
But what he remembers about the horrible injury is, well, how normal it looked.
On top of his secondary duties, Mallory coaches the gunners on the punt team, a position mostly filled by cornerbacks and safeties who fly down the sidelines ad the first-responders on a punt and try to contain the returnman from breaking it outside.
So Mallory was watching Countess as a flew down the field against Alabama, and saw him fall to the turf.
"I didn't see much. It wasn't horrific. He just twisted it, and sometimes, those are the ones that are the worst," Mallory said.
"Our trainers did a great job, because he wanted to go back in. I looked at him and he said, 'I'm ready.' That's the type of competitor he is. But the trainers kept him off the field, and that was best for him."
Thus, Countess embarked on a yearlong quest to put the pads back on - and, for the first time since that Alabama game, compete alongside his fellow teammates.
The rehabilitation was grueling, but it officially ended last Monday, when Countess joined his teammates for the first fall practice of the season.
"Countess has looked great," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "He did everything that we're doing in practice. He looked good running around, with speed and cutting ability."
"It is a blessing," added Countess. "Sitting out, watching your teammates work, is not fun. I am definitely taking one step at a time, but I am excited. The trainers were very careful with my recovery. They didn't want to push it too hard. By the time I stepped on the field, I was ready to go."
His teammates have not noticed a drop off in his athleticism or level of play. Although Mallory admitted that Countess' first practice back was "maybe a little rusty," the redshirt sophomore corner (he was awarded a medical redshirt for last season) didn't take long to fit right in.
"I'm no doctor, but from what I have seen, he has his speed back," fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon said. "He's cutting very well. To me, he looks fine. And the best thing about him is he's smart. The reason he played since he was a freshman is that his learning curve is really quick. He picks things up very quickly. He was a step ahead of the game. He already had the technique coming in, and he just did what coaches tell him to do. So he just jumped right back in this summer."
Mallory said that, whenever a player goes down for a sustained period of time, there is some worry about how he will respond.
Will he stick with it? Will he get discouraged? Will he alienate himself from his teammates?
It was immediately apparent that Countess would have none of these issues.
"Blake has always been with us," Mallory said. "He's never missed a beat, as far as the meeting times."
Although he couldn't participate in the physical realm for several months, Countess embraced the mental realm, pouring over the playbook and whatever film he could watch.
"There is an appreciation he has for playing now," Mallory said. "Sometimes you take it for granted, and then all of a sudden, it's taken away from you. What he went through a year ago, as painful as it was, he has grown from it. You see that in his work ethic and his drive."
"He's always encouraging guys and helping out. He is one of our hardest workers. He was having a great camp last year, and he did a great job this spring of coaching the guys, watching from the sideline and talking to them when he came off. He sat with [junior cornerback Raymon Taylor] during the season and talked to him. He would see something, and discuss it with Ray."