FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When Michigan’s football program hired Mike Macdonald as its defensive coordinator in January, it garnered a near-unanimous response from fans and the media:
At the time of his hire, Macdonald lacked the credentials of more conventional candidates for the position. He had spent six seasons as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens – including one as a defensive backs coach and three as a linebackers coach – but had never led a defense or called plays before. .
Macdonald was about as unconventional as a hire could get. But now, as Macdonald prepares his defense for the Wolverines’ first college football playoff appearance, that uncertainty is hard to hold back.
“It’s kind of like pinching yourself,” Macdonald said Tuesday. “I look at the microphone and it says Orange Bowl, and it’s kind of hard to believe we’re here. But it was a great, great experience, and again, really grateful for (Jim Harbaugh) to have a chance with a guy like me.
Friday’s game will also be something of a homecoming for Macdonald, who studied finance at Georgia before serving as a graduate assistant and defensive quality control coach for the football team from 2010 to 2013. With the Bulldogs, he learned the ins and outs of college football. which he never experienced as a player, from shadowing then-coach Mark Richt to developing what he describes as “a really difficult relationship with the printer”.
“Those were great days, man,” Macdonald said. “I just learned from Coach Richt and Coach (Todd) Grantham and Coach (Mike) Bobo, and really what makes an organization work, how it goes – being on the ground floor floor doing whatever you can to help the team win was really valuable.”
The lessons he learned in that role are evident in Michigan’s defense this season. The defensive line’s pre-snap positioning, the linebackers’ eye discipline on the play option and the cornerbacks’ ability to maintain leverage in coverage all point to the focus on detail that the Wolverines were seriously lacking. under Don Brown. Michigan’s near-miraculous turnaround on defense — going from 88th nationally in total defense last season to 10th in 2021 — speaks to its refocus on player development just as much as its reinvention of defensive schemes.
His approach to his players also goes back to Macdonald’s coaching roots. While still an undergraduate, Macdonald coached ninth-grade football at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia. Beyond the football fundamentals he’s always mastered, coaching ninth graders taught Macdonald how to develop the relationships that motivate athletes to grow.
“It was probably the most fun practice I’ve had so far this year,” Macdonald said. “…But talk about great people in this building – coach Xarvia Smith really taught me a lot about life and how to be a man and how to grow and how to mentor people. I still have great relationships with some of those players to this day.
His players feel it too.
“For me, he did a lot,” said junior cornerback DJ Turner. “Man, he just gave me a chance. We do a whole bunch of different programs, and it’s really good when he came, the knowledge of football he brought with him.
David Ojabo, junior edge rusher, added: “Personally, for me, he just made the game fun again. Like DJ said, he gave me a chance to play freely and have fun doing it.
Fun doesn’t win football games, but Wolverines’ success this season shows that it certainly doesn’t hurt. When Macdonald replaced Brown, he fundamentally changed nearly every aspect of Michigan’s defense, from how he defends passes to how he sets up for opponents. Macdonald’s influences are visible in each of these changes.
On Friday, he’ll get the chance to show off his coaching style against one of the very programs that shaped him in the first place.