No interior defensive lineman, middle linebacker or safety wants to hear the word "soft," especially in conjunction with the qualifier "in the middle." It's like a Miss Universe contestant hearing whispers of "cellulite."
But Michigan head coach Brady Hoke put it out there. He did so because that's what he saw in Michigan's spring game, and no doubt in part as a challenge for the summer.
"We were too soft in the middle, way too soft in the middle of the defense," Hoke said.
For most self-respecting football players, those are fighting words. But the fight isn't against Hoke. It's against themselves, against inexperience, against complacency, and against the mounting expectations after Michigan's defense advanced in warp speed last autumn.
It's supposed to take another step, even though some of the anchors of 2011 - like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen - have pulled up and sailed toward professional waters. Those that remain take Hoke's words to heart, and as intended.
"At times, I think we were soft up the middle," acknowledged fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, in the wake of the spring game performance. "They beat us with the run a couple of times. We did have guys step up and make plays. I'm sure Coach Hoke hit on the fact that we're still far away from where we want to be. We need to be more physical, and we need to play more downhill. There is still a lot of work left."
Hoke planted the summer seed, and now it's up to Michigan's veterans to make it grow, Kovacs acknowledged. The head coach put huge responsibility on Michigan's seniors last season, and players such as Martin, Van Bergen, Kevin Koger, David Molk and others responded.
In the end, it was their 11-2 season and Sugar Bowl championship, shared with the rest of the Wolverines. Kovacs takes very seriously the need to guard against any leadership regression.
"That's one of the things the coaches emphasized to me, and that the seniors have talked about," Kovacs said. "We need to be a great senior class. We need to be more vocal. That's one of the things I strive to do, as well as Denard [Robinson], Kenny Demens, Will Campbell. These guys have all really stepped up and tried to lead not only their positions, but their sides of the ball and the team as a whole.
"There will be a few weeks where it will be all on us, to get these guys in here and working out. With this team, it shouldn't be a problem. These guys are going to want to get into that weight room as soon as they can. The senior leaders are going to make sure that happens."
Kovacs looks at his own progress over the past few years, and simply shakes his head. At the same time, he insists he's not accepting status quo.
He also loves playing a second year in Michigan's defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. There's a comfort zone there, but not one in which Kovacs intends to get too comfortable.
"It's not even comparable," Kovacs said of his own improvement. "I'm light years ahead of where I was before, but I know where my roots are. I know what got me here. I know it's not all athleticism. It's being a student of the game, and being a hard worker. That has always kept me hungry.
"I'm more comfortable with the defense that I'm running now, in the second year of running it. That's a good sign - I don't think we've ever had that. The defense as a whole, we're very comfortable with that. But there are still a lot of improvements we need to make."
Soft in the middle - those are words to harden one's focus and effort. Kovacs knows the Wolverines are returning to fall camp with a secondary featuring returning starters across the board. He likes that, but at the same time, isn't fooled by it.
"It's great to have four guys coming back," he said. "Any time you have experience in the defensive backfield, especially, it's important, because those are some big positions back there. At the same time, every year, everybody gets a fresh slate. What you did in the past is old news.
"They all understand that we've got to continue to compete. That's one of the things Coach Hoke emphasizes. Nobody has a job until Sept. 1, the first game."
Those who stand the firmest - in the middle, on the edges, or anywhere in-between - get to try and follow last year's act. It says here Kovacs will be a captain for the 2012 Wolverines. He can get a head start on leading the way over the next couple of months.
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