I've written in various places, and Brian said again just yesterday, that Blake Countess is a very good zone cornerback who was exposed last year by being asked to do things outside of his comfort zone. Or outside his natural abilities. Or outside the capabilities of a guy his size.
The tape is the best evidence that he's not a fit for the aggressive man-to-man stuff Michigan switched to early last season, and will almost certainly try again this year. The best evidence against it was produced by Countess this spring, when he generated above the usual level of comments for controllable things like his work ethic, his knowledge of the defense, his toughness, etc.
But his size is a thing Blake can't change, and that plus the inability to shut down Tyler Lockett or William Fuller downgraded our hopes for a next-Woodson (leave him on an island) ceiling even before we discovered he's no MC5:
(you forgot to kick out the jams.)
That kind of thing can be mitigated by not lining him up so close—you give up that lock-down mentality for either soft coverage that lets the QB complete short stuff, or puts a safety over the top so Countess can break on that stuff.
Is Countess too small?
His size is below average for a guy who registered a play on a Power 5 roster, though not debilitatingly so. Here's how the CB depth chart stacks up against cornerbacks on all Power 5 rosters from 2010-2013 (#6 is Lyons):
Bubble size is more guys with that listed ht/wt. Avg height was 5'11", and weight was 183. Year-to-year differences were negligible.
If you need a roster refresher I put the tentative depth chart below-right. Our guys are generally on the line of distribution, with Richardson a wee little dude and Stribling and Dawson (and Keith Washington) on the edges of lankiness. I included Peppers to show just how different he is from most cornerbacks on this level of football, even as a redshirt freshman whose conditioning was hurt by a year of injury.
There were also quite a few teams who list all safeties and cornerbacks as "DBs"; indeed the cornerback sample we did get seems like it wouldn't change much. If you care here's Michigan's expected 2015 backfield rotation against the distribution of one year's Power 5 cornerbacks.
Interesting side-note: Florida's cornerbacks last year under Durkin were the smallest of any school in the Power 5. Using the formula from the chart above, Auburn and Minnesota were by far the biggest defensive backfields—both teams were about 6'0/200 with their cornerbacks. I know Minnesota at least is a man-all-day-long team. Nebraska and Ohio State were top five biggest, Iowa and Notre Dame around there and Stanford relatively big. Michigan was smallish—right around FSU and LSU. TCU was the second-smallest at CB.
Anyway Countess isn't the little guy according to the rosters; Lewis is. Jourdan's game is based on his recovery speed. He is just okay at jamming a guy at the line, but is so fast on a dead run and so quick to change direction that he doesn't have to stonewall his guy.
[Jump for what we've got in Lyons]
Blake isn't unathletic but neither is he so ludicrously physically gifted that he can make that his game. Neither is he big enough to make super-aggressive his life. Here's that distribution chart again with just some of the best recent I figured you'd still be familiar with:
Will Likely and Sojourn Shelton are athletic freak-types who are impossible to shake. Darqueze Dennard was one of the best at this. His lightness was a strength because it made him incredibly agile. He was also one of the handsiest, pass-interferenciest guys I've seen off a Pete Carroll team. Receivers could get a release against him, but he had such strong, long arms, and was so sound in technique, that he'd be right on them anyway. The arms also made him tough to block (I remember Jake Butt whiffing on him). I don't think anyone we have is comparable to that guy.
The rest of the man-to-man merchants: big dudes. Super-Watsons plus the speed we've kind of gathered Watson doesn't have. Woodson and the next-Woodsons were that type of player: big enough to reroute you automatically, and fast and agile enough to beat any route by any receiver. We have a guy who's kind of like that but his other skills have him being used elsewhere.
Is Lyons a Bick and Thig Stick-You-in-Da-Nose-Guy?
Let's define what that is: in the Spring Game Brandon Watson—who is listed about the same size as Lyons—5'11/190—lined up about an inch from various Borges receivers' facemasks. Several seconds after the snap, a receiver occasionally squirted out of that area. Watson spent his entire high school career in press man, and showed he is exactly that. He still well within "average" for a cornerback, though on the plus side of weight. Fuller caught him against Da'Mario Jones doing his thing:
A Lyon in Winter
From the limited video I've been able to find of Lyons (mostly from the ND game) he's not at all a Watson stick-'em-at-the-line type of player. In the Rose Bowl vs. MSU he played field corner and almost exclusively with a 5- or 10-yard cushion.
This is one he broke up over top on a 15-yard out. State tested Lyons deep early in the 2nd quarter and Wayne stayed in Burbridge's pocket (Burbridge knocked his shoulder at the end to unsuccessfully try to draw a PI).
But on the next play Lippett beat Lyons on a post by yards.
Lyons is the guy standing on the 50 yard line by the sideline. He should have been the guy standing in the green guy's shadow.
This was a hard thing to do that Lyons didn't do: the linebackers aren't giving protection underneath, and the Cover 3 means Wayne is supposed to be extra careful not to give up outside leverage. But he gave up way too much inside. You can see Lyons was getting over the sluggo (slant 'n go) so when Lippett cut inside the safety should have come down.
But there was tons of space because Lyons didn't have the quick-twitch to stay close the gap when Lippett cut up. Here's 2012 Alabama star Dee Milliner doing it correctly from my article a few weeks back. Zone coverage isn't just a "do your job" kind of thing; sometimes you have to have the awareness of what else is happening. That's the thing Countess brings in spades.
Later on this drive Lyons did pick up a pass interference in the end zone. It shouldn't have been called because the ball was a good 6 feet above the receiver and really all Lyons did was trip over his feet. This was a thing repeated a few more times as I found video of him, and a thing a Stanford fan site said about him: he's not a crazy athlete and this tends to screw him up right when the ball is arriving, drawing flags or missing a rake-out; but he has the straight-away speed to be there.
The other thing Lyons seemed to do well was the thing Stanford does particularly well: tackle in space. Other than that he seemed to be about Countess's speed or a bit more, and minus the uncanny understanding of coverage that Blake used to create this:
Don't get me wrong: I love that Michigan picked up Wayne Lyons—the first backup for a top five defense is a huge asset to have for what we're hoping will be a top five defense, and it's not like Countess (should he win the job) and Lewis could play every down. I do think a senior version of Countess is better than previous iterations of Countess, and that even his weakness will be less glaring, though it's doubtful Michigan can deploy him to his strengths when the rest of the defense is moving away from them. If watching Lyons changed anything it's that Countess is probably a surer bet to start with, since he's got the defense down as well as anyone on the team while Lyons is just now allowed to officially call himself a Wolverine.
I think from the tape and makeup of these guys that Michigan's defense should play a little softer on the boundary side than they did last year, and/or give them more safety and linebacker help. I don't believe that Lyons is going to be the press-man guy Michigan tried to have Countess be last year. I think the defense will be fine anyway.