Ann Arbor – The first time Detroit Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher laid eyes on cornerback Jourdan Lewis as a high school freshman, he thought he was watching a pretty good athlete.
But things quickly changed.
Pretty good became very good, which became impossible-not-to-play-him good.
"When I watched him develop his sophomore year, he really moved ahead of the other kids," Wilcher said. "He really emerged. We had a couple of All-Americans that year, and he was shining. It was always amazing how fast he developed and how he grew as a player.
"He just really adapts to coaching technique and style. He really did tune into the details of being a great player. If you watch him, you talk about positioning and footwork and his hips and shoulders. He really takes his game seriously."
Michigan's defensive backs will get their most substantial test of the season when the No. 12 Wolverines play No. 7 and unbeaten Michigan State in the annual in-state rivalry game. Michigan State, which has won six of the last seven in the series, is led by quarterback Connor Cook and has a strong group of receivers Lewis described as "dynamic."
Lewis on Monday at Michigan's weekly news conference acknowledged the test the Wolverines are about to face, immediately mentioning Cook's 29-3 record as a starter. But Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has consistently referred to his defensive backs week to week as a group that is "ascending" and playing a substantial role in the team's success. Michigan is 5-1, 2-0 Big Ten and has three straight shutouts.
For his role in Michigan's 38-0 victory over Northwestern last Saturday, Lewis was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after he recorded four tackles and had a stunning interception returned 37 yards for a touchdown.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior said he hasn't needed to watch the video highlights of that interception, his second in two weeks.
"Honestly, I really don't like to think about the past (successes)," Lewis said Monday. "I like to think about future opportunities and opportunities I missed. I had a few plays I left on the field, and those are the things you have to focus on and try to correct.
"He made a great try for the ball. It was an effort play for me."
Along with his two interceptions this season – Jeremy Clark leads the team with three – Lewis has a team-high eight pass breakups.
That Lewis is able to overcome some obvious height discrepancies – look no further than the Wolverines' fourth opponent, BYU, which boasted three towering receivers – comes as no surprise to Wilcher.
"I think we overemphasize the height thing," Wilcher said. "The most important I thing I look at, the intangibles, he has them. He has a great vertical jump, he has great speed, and he has long arms and a great wingspan.
"The most important thing that stands out to me regarding Jourdan Lew, is the day (Alabama coach) Nick Saban met Jourdan (at a camp at Alabama). He thought he was the most incredible athlete he met by far."
Lewis has been turning lots of heads this season. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has rated Lewis the No. 1 cornerback, and after the Northwestern game wrote that the junior "will be shooting up draft boards in the near future after another special performance." And PFF said Lewis' pick-six against the Wildcats was one of the best in college football this year.
Wilcher laughed and said that part of the reason for Lewis' success is because quarterbacks have had to throw the ball faster, a clear tribute to the pressure Michigan's defensive front has applied.
"I think his 10th-grade year he led us in interceptions with seven, and when everybody found out who he was, they didn't throw the ball his way," Wilcher said, laughing. "He made one of those Charles Woodson interceptions -- one-handed in a game but the ref called him out of bounds.
"He's always been doing spectacular things."
And his teammates have noticed.
Linebacker Desmond Morgan said the Michigan defensive backs have responded well to defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin's emphasis on aggressively trying to force turnovers. Michigan has seven interceptions and 24 pass breakups.
"Jourdan is a guy who has contributed well," Morgan said. "Coach Durkin always says when a ball is in the air it's a 50-50 ball, and when it's a 50-50 ball it's got be our ball among the DBs. They've embraced that and taken it to heart."
Redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers has taken the Lewis appreciation to another level. Peppers has 21 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups. He moved from corner to safety before the season, although he can move around.
Peppers said he's certain he knows how good Lewis is.
"He's the best corner in the country," Peppers said after the Northwestern game. "That makes everybody's job a lot easier when you've got a guy out there that shuts down half the field. It's expected from him. It's not like, 'Oh, good job, Jourdan.' No, we expect that from him. Jourdan inspires me to play better."