The Michigan Wolverines are set to kick off fall camp this week and answer some of the burning questions they have about the type of football team they’ll field this season. Jim Harbaugh returned to Michigan with an extended contract and a desire to get things turned around.
The biggest change that took place this season was the complete overhaul of the defensive coaching staff. The book was out on Don Brown’s aggressive man-to-man defense and some recruiting misses at key positions materialized into the worst defensive season of the Harbaugh era by far. Some would argue Brown should have been dismissed after the 2018 Ohio State game. Some would say that 2019’s version of The Game should have been it. But they let it play out for one more season and the bottom completely fell out.
Given Harbaugh’s shaky footing as the long-term solution in Ann Arbor moving forward, Michigan did not exactly have its pick of the litter of defensive coordinator candidates. Some feared this would lead to another Brown-type hire or a retread coach that would try to patch their issues. Harbaugh swung for the fences and took a chance on Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald, a young assistant that is the antithesis of his predecessor in almost every way.
Macdonald had a key role in a schematic and philosophy alteration of the Ravens defense under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. The Ravens have always historically run a base 3-4 front and continued to do so, but John Harbaugh leaned on Martindale and Macdonald, among others on staff, to adjust and modernize the defense a bit. Jim Harbaugh said that Macdonald came as highly recommended to him as he could be, which carried even more weight coming from his brother.
“I hadn’t been around Mike a lot except the times I had been to Baltimore, visited there and talked some football,” Jim Harbaugh said last month. “My brother John was like, ‘Yeah, this is the guy I would hire. Probably would be our next defensive coordinator here in Baltimore after Wink.’”
“This came from John. I even asked him, ‘John, it’s pretty awesome you would recommend somebody you think so highly of that’s on your staff.’ He said, ‘Well, I really love Michigan football and I really love you, so I want to see you both be successful.’”
Macdonald has put an emphasis on versatility both positionally and schematically. Michigan wants to be able to zig when the other team zags or drop from man into zone coverage on a moment’s notice. He has also been described as a calmer presence in the locker room than Brown’s fiery demeanor.
But this is all talk for now. The work begins on Friday and Macdonald and the defensive staff have a lot of work to do over the first week and a half of camp. They expect to have the entirety of the defense installed within the first half of fall practices.
“We have an install schedule based on how we were able to install in the spring,” Macdonald told the media on Thursday in Ann Arbor. “There’s a rhyme, reason and a cadence behind what concepts go in when. It kind of builds on itself. It’s about a 10-12-day process and then you start to revisit. Again, I’ve been saying this since I’ve got here, if we’re doing something and we don’t get it. We’re not going to the next thing. After day four or five, all of the concepts are in. It’s not like you’re in a hurry to get all that stuff done. You’re just trying to introduce those things that you can build on over time. We feel good about it.”
Michigan has talent on all three levels of its defense. Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton have been tabbed as breakout pieces up front. Aidan Hutchinson will be moved around as a pass rusher. Josh Ross and Mike Barrett provide some intrigue at inside backer, along with Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson. Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins could be one of the best safety tandems in the country. There’s still a lot to like here.
How much Michigan’s defense improves might be relative. Will they be better than what they were last season? It’s hard to imagine that they won’t. Is this a potentially elite group like the earlier seasons of the Harbaugh era? It’s tough to say. The speed at cornerback and depth at linebacker seems to be the biggest questions here in terms of roster construction. From there, it is a matter of how quickly these guys can pick up the new system.
Things will likely be a bit rocky early on, but improvement week-to-week will be the biggest thing we look for out of Michigan’s defense. New blood and a simplified, versatile approach could be what the doctor ordered,
“We want big, fast, aggressive, smart football players,” Macdonald said. “Across the board. That’s what we’re looking for. Let’s not overcomplicate it. There are exceptions to every rule with the height and weight requirements and stuff. You have different characteristics that you’re looking for. If a guy is just a complete baller, we’re going to make some adjustments in height, weight, and stuff we’re looking for. That’s it. The best, biggest, fastest football players that we can find.”
Michigan wants to line up and play football. It does not have to be any more complex than that. In four weeks' time, they will have the opportunity to do it.