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September 2, 2013On Sept. 1, 2012, cornerback Blake Countess' sophomore season ended before it really began, with a torn ACL early in the first quarter that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
After 364 days away from the spotlight, Countess was finally back on the football field. On Central Michigan's first offensive play, he lined up nine yards off wide receiver Courtney Williams, who saw the soft coverage, ran a deep hook and picked up 17 yards.
"I was more antsy than nervous," Countess said Monday. "It wasn't really nerves. It was more emotions. I had to get my emotions under control. That was the biggest thing for me.
"At the beginning I was a little overemotional. That happens with everybody, first-game jitters and things like that. But being out of the loop, out of the game and the limelight for a year, all that, coming back was a little much.
"I was hyped up in pregame warmups. My blood was boiling. I got out there the first drive, and it was like everything was flying, coming at me. I had to calm myself down, talk with the other cornerbacks and DBs, and we got after it.
"By the end of the game, I was comfortable. It will get better, and it got better."
After the big gain, Central Michigan targeted Countess a few more times, eventually abandoning the plan when it was clear that Countess had settled into the speed of the game.
Countess finished the game with four tackles, playing cornerback and, when the package called for it, nickel.
In those instances, Countess would bump inside, and freshman cornerback Channing Stribling, who finished with five tackles and a forced fumble, would take over at cornerback.
It's a new look for Countess, but one that he immediately grew into during fall camp.
"Personally, I like going inside," he said. "The nickel gets to do a little more, as far as playing in coverage, blitzing, being more of a run defender and things like that, which is what I like to do. It gives us a little more length on the outside, with Channing being a taller corner. He and Ray do a great job when we're in the nickel package. It gives us a changeup when teams want to go 11-personnel, 10-personnel, things like that, and we can match up with them."
Although freshman safety Dymonte Thomas appeared to be a lock for the nickel spot after turning in an impressive spring practice, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and the rest of the staff like what they've seen from the Countess-as-nickel package.
"When you have a guy who's athletic like Blake that can cover slot receivers, I think that's part of it," Hoke said. "The other part, I think Strib and [freshman] Jourdan Lewis both have had pretty good fall camps. They both battle, and they're competitive. Strib's 6-2 and he's long and he's got long arms, and he's got a lot of leverage. We think he's a pretty good football player."
When asked if he was concerned about putting Stribling, a true freshman, on an island on the outside, Hoke smiled and said, "Gotta get there some time."
Countess and the rest of the secondary have full confidence in Stibling's abilities, too.
"He was my roommate all through camp," Countess said. "I have been with him all throughout camp, and he is one of those guys who works hard, and he's confident in his game. He listens, and that is one of the biggest things as a freshmen.
"You have to listen, because freshmen aren't used to being consistently critiqued, and when you get someone like that who listens, it's good. We talk every night, and I have been working with him. He just has that confidence that you need at the cornerback position. All the freshmen do, but I think he separated himself, and that's why he is in the position he is in."