Michigan needed a new face of the defense — new teaching techniques, a new personality, and new energy.
Michigan opted for someone head coach Jim Harbaugh’s brother (Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh) was very familiar with — his linebackers coach, Mike Macdonald.
“My brother John was like, Yeah, this is the guy I would hire and probably would be our next defensive coordinator here in Baltimore after (defensive coordinator) Wink (Martindale),” Harbaugh said. “And what he liked about him, what he told me, when I asked him what he liked about him, he said he’s really smart, he was in on the ground floor of the Ravens when they changed their defense, invented their defense and their scheme. Very detailed and very good teacher.”
Macdonald’s coaching career, which spans over a decade, includes two distinct stops, learning under two highly successful coaches in Mark Richt at Georgia and John Harbaugh in Baltimore.
Macdonald’s coaching history
2010: Georgia- Graduate Assistant
2011-2013: Georgia- Defensive Quality Control
2014: Baltimore Ravens- Intern
2015-16: Baltimore Ravens- Defensive Assistant
2017: Baltimore Ravens- Defensive Backs Coach
2018-20: Baltimore Ravens- Linebackers Coach
2021-present: Michigan- Defensive Coordinator
As John Harbaugh told Jim, Macdonald was part of Baltimore overhauling their scheme and building it from the ground up, something that likely aided Macdonald when assembling Michigan’s defense to fit the strengths of its current playmakers.
The Ravens defense blitzed a big amount with Macdonald on staff, in fact they were No. 1 in blitz percentage in 2020 at 44.1%.
“You look at the Ravens defense and what Wink has been able to do and the rest of our staff the last few years. You’re like, man, guys are flying all over the place. That’s kind of what we’re trying to create here,” Macdonald told the media. “I think the secret sauce is that it’s really not that complicated. Again, just different concepts layered together. We’re trying to create complexity to an offense. Really trying to make the offense’s life a living nightmare.”
When it comes to scheme, the opposition won’t be able to completely pigeon hole the unit. “We’re gonna do everything, baby. We’re gonna pattern match, we’re gonna play zone, we’re gonna play man. Gonna have it all,” Macdonald said.
And even with doing everything, Macdonald isn’t trying to complicate things. The defense has been learning one principle of the scheme before moving onto the next — and if they’re not firing at all cylinders at one layer they aren’t moving on until they understand what to do.
The install of the defense has been methodical under Macdonald, as has the labels Macdonald chooses not to put on players at certain positions. “The guys playing on the edge of our defense, whether you call him a linebacker, whatever you want to call him, some fancy name, everyone has some fancy name for some outside backer. Look, man, set the edge, make sure you rush the passer and when we ask you to drop, don’t screw up. We’re not splitting atoms,” Macdonald said. “There’s a certain temperament, intensity and violence we expect them to play with. I think we’ve got a really strong group of guys that we’re asking to do that and have that skill set.”
Macdonald, 34, has been receiving great reviews from coaches on Michigan’s staff, as well as veteran leaders such as defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. “Coach Mac came in here with a lot of energy and its a different type of focus,” Hutchinson said. “You can tell he’s been in the league for the past eight years. He’s got that way about him. I like what we’re doing with the defense. I like the culture he is instilling in us, I think he’s doing a really good job and I’m just really fired up to have him as my coach.”
Macdonald’s task is a tall one — but one that can be accomplished. There can be quick turnarounds in college football from year-to-year in regards to how a defense or offense performs, and that’s what Michigan aims to achieve on both sides of the ball in 2021.
There’s a lot of work ahead for Macdonald and Michigan’s defense to become respected, and as linebacker Josh Ross put it, they like being the underdogs. “We know what’s going on inside our building. We know how we’ve changed. We know how we’ve gotten better. We know how we’ve grown,” Ross said. “And everybody is going to see that when the season comes.”