ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Blake Countess had a pretty good 2011 season, especially for a true freshman playing cornerback in the Big Ten.
But there was one thing missing from Countess' résumé last year, a point that he was often reminded of by his coaches during Michigan's spring practice: He did not have any interceptions.
"I was second on the team in pass breakups [with six], but a lot of those could have been interceptions if I had been in better position," Countess told ESPN.com. "It's just knowing interception points, focusing on the ball. Little things like that."
It's the little things that Countess is working on this spring in an effort to go from promising freshman to standout sophomore. While he played well enough to earn a starting job for the final six games, he was part of a Wolverines secondary that wilted a bit in the regular season finale against Ohio State and in the Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
"The last couple of games, we gave up big plays," Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "That can never happen in our defense."
Countess wasn't the only culprit, but he blames himself for making some bad reads and getting lazy with his techniques. He watched film of those last two games over the offseason to try and correct those mistakes.
Mattison has noticed his diligence.
"The thing I look for is, how does a young man work from an adequate freshman year toward improving throughout the spring?" Mattison said. "Blake has worked very, very hard. Sometimes when you start as a freshman, you have that lull, thinking, 'I've arrived.' But he's a very motivated player who wants to be as good as he can be. I'm excited about what I believe his progress will be."
Mattison ultimately played a role in making sure Countess made it to Ann Arbor.
Countess committed to Michigan in December 2010 when Rich Rodriguez was still the head coach. He didn't know the new staff and was a little unsure what to expect. New head coach Brady Hoke visited his house to help reaffirm things. But "what sealed the deal," he said, was when Mattison paid a visit shortly afterward.
Countess is from Owings Mill, Md., just outside of Baltimore where Mattison had been coaching for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Though Countess was not a Ravens fan -- he grew up rooting for the Dallas Cowboys -- he was well aware of the Ravens' defense and loved watching Ray Lewis and Ed Reed play.
"I figured he had been with some of the best players around the world," Countess said. "And if I could get a little bit of his knowledge, that would be great for me."
Since coming to Michigan, Countess has tried to improve his own knowledge base as much as possible. During his first fall camp, he roomed with senior Troy Wollfolk and peppered him with questions after practices. He got a grasp on how to play cornerback at this level last year. Now, he says, the goal is to learn what every member of the secondary does on every play, and then eventually understanding how the entire defense fits into the scheme.
And if that knowledge leads to some more interceptions, even better.
"When you have a good play, it might be a pass breakup, it might be a stop," he said. "But an interception changes the momentum, and that's a big thing we need as a defense."