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From Walk-On Player To Hands-On Coach, Kovacs Takes Over Bengals Safeties: 'No One Was Going To Outwork Jordan'

Bengals Secondary/Safeties coach Jordan Kovacs
Bengals Secondary/Safeties coach Jordan Kovacs

A judge's son who has gained enough approval from a jury of his peers to secure his first position room, new Bengals secondary/safeties coach Jordan Kovacs has an impressive opening argument.

He played safety for Lou Anarumo. He helped coach it under Jim Harbaugh. As a college walk-on who became Michigan's MVP before he became an undrafted rookie, he scraped in the NFL for three seasons and 28 games on wits and will.

"A try-hard guy," Anarumo says. "He was gritty. He was tough. No one was going to outwork Jordan."

For Greg Mattison, his defensive coordinator during those days in Ann Arbor Kovacs ended up with the 12th most tackles in Michigan history, it seemed as if Kovacs was already coaching.

"He was the kind of guy if you wanted to make an adjustment, or you would say, 'Hey, we need to do this,' you wanted it to be in his hands. You wanted him to be a part of it," says Mattison, retired after 35 years coaching in college and the league. "Because you knew he would do a great job at whatever you needed him to do.

"Not a great athlete? It depends what you're looking for in great athletes.  I wouldn't have traded him for anybody. Maybe he couldn't have played man-to man  coverage if that guy ran 9.5. But I'll tell you what. I knew he would beat him up and do his job.  I know that."

When the Dolphins released Kovacs and he couldn't hang on with the Chiefs and Rams in the 2016  preseason, he called Mattison and Harbaugh looking to get into coaching and got a 2017 internship. The next year, he was a grad assistant and he says choosing the defensive line is one of the best decisions he ever made.

When Anarumo came calling the next year in 2019 as new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's defensive coordinator, Kovacs began a key five-year stint with the linebackers.

Anarumo has had three linebackers coaches here, but the constant has been Kovacs. First as a quality control coach specializing in helping the backers, and then as linebackers coach James Bettcher's assistant. In those five seasons, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have grown into one of the NFL's top tandems and the position group has been one of the more productive on the team.

"One of the things that Coach Harbaugh said to me my first day of coaching was, 'You're a former player, you played a lot of college ball, you played in the NFL, you're always going to draw on your playing experiences as a coach," Kovacs says. "I don't think I totally understood what he meant until I tried to put myself in the player's shoes and coach from that.

"When I was coaching the D-line, it was really hard for me to do that because I hadn't really ever played the position. When I was coaching linebackers, even, it's kind of, 'How would I see this if I were a linebacker?' because I was rarely in those positions."

The ability to learn the front seven has helped him sharpen his skills in the back end. Plus, Anarumo says his playing career as a safety should smooth any transition.

"One hundred percent," Anarumo says. "Just what you want. He was always paying attention to everything around him. So what he's done here hasn't surprised me."

Now his own room is what's always been his room.

"Safety to me is just riding a bike. I found myself just coaching drills when I have done a little bit of work with the safeties or the back end and it just feels so natural and easy," Kovacs says. "I'm excited about that because I know what's being coached in that room.

"When it comes to run fits or when it comes to coverage or underneath droppers, I know where they're going to be. And that helps me coach these guys. I know when they're spilling vs. when they're boxing it to us. I know what they're counting on from us. And it's a good perspective."

Lou Kovacs, an Oregon Municipal Court Judge just outside Toledo, played what he once called "mop-up duty," for Michigan at the dawn of the '80s before he turned to the law. Jordan's brother is a lawyer. So is his wife. Jordan ended up in the lane of his mother, a Toledo school teacher.

Still, he's in a court heavy with public opinion. The departure of long-time safeties coach Robert Livingston puts Kovacs in front of a room under the microscope. As young as it is talented, the Bengals safeties are coming off a season that saw them as the last line of a defense that allowed an uncharacteristic amount of explosive plays.

He's been entrusted with polishing two Draft Day jewels in 2022 first-rounder Dax Hill and 2023 third-rounder Jordan Battle, their de facto rookie of the year.

If anyone knows how Anarumo wants safety to be played, it is Kovacs, a Dolphins backup when Anarumo was the coordinator and the secondary coach.

"You've got to be a great communicator and a great tackler. I think it starts with that," Kovacs says. "I think if you can do those things, it goes a long way. Obviously, we have a lot of defense, we run a lot of defense.

"The most important thing is that everybody's on the same page. And that starts with the safeties. You're the quarterbacks in the back end. That's the first and most important thing and you've got to be a good tackler. And then, schematically, we ask the guys to do it all. Play the deep half, play man, play in the box. And you're kind of interchangeable too. There's a lot that's asked out of this position for sure. And it starts with leadership and communication."

Priority No. 1 is no doubt the brilliant and at times erratic Hill. He was so good so many times during what was really his first full season playing pure safety. He and Antoine Winfield Jr. were the only safeties in the league that had at least 110 tackles and six of them for a loss to go with double-digit passes defensed.

More productive than many. Like, say, a rookie Jessie Bates III with 111 tackles, none for a loss, and seven passes defensed.

But there were also times Anarumo said Hill was out of position on some of those long ones.

There doesn't seem to be any move afoot to shuffle positions. And, from one Michigan safety to another, Kovacs is quite bullish on his fellow Blue and believes it's all about reps.

"He's obviously got the skill set. He's a great player. And it's funny because I watched a lot of Dax in college," Kovacs says. "He's just one of those guys that he's got the skill to be a very, very good player. These guys are young and you can't coach experience. There's no greater coach than experience and getting some reps. Both those guys got a lot of reps. They got a lot of experience and that's going to be huge for them and I expect them to take big steps forward.

"He made some damn good plays. He made some really flashy plays. And I'm sure that he also told you there's some plays that he'd like back and that's just life in the NFL as a safety and especially a young safety. The sky, in my opinion, is the limit for him … I'm personally really, really excited to work with him. He can run. He's willing, he's tough and he's a smart kid. There's a lot of that you want and a lot that you can work with. And it's our job just to put them in the right spots."

Greg Mattison, who once put Kovacs in a lot of the right spots for Michigan, thinks he'll do just fine with the latest Blue safety.

"What I remember about him," says Mattison of that first year Kovacs helped on defense and special teams, "is that we would be talking and he'd be watching the defensive line harder than the GA coaching the line. That's why he is who he is."