What Mike Macdonald said about the Michigan football defense before Penn State

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan football defense has looked completely different in 2021 than in recent years, and the credit goes to both the players as well as new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

Sure, there have been some mistakes here and there, but given what the defense looked like in 2020, they’re few and far between rather than on nearly every snap.

On Wednesday, Macdonald shared what he likes about the state of the defense, what he’s liked, how his philosophy has evolved and more.

Here is everything he had to say about his unit with Penn State coming up on Saturday.

List

What Jim Harbaugh said about Michigan football before Penn State

Is he surprised at how quickly David Ojabo has ascended?

“We learned about him when we first got here. What you saw on tape was a guy with a great ability. You could tell there was some untapped potential there. It kinda made sense a little bit once you realized his history. But his learning curve — I was telling somebody, I think he learns more football in a day than I did in like two years. He’s just a sponge, soaks it all up. He’s doing a great job. Fun to coach.”

Does that raise the bar on how much he teaches him now?

“Yes. Great question. We started out and probably I overloaded him a little bit and then you realize, OK, let’s give a little more bite size increments and now he’s just — everything you give him he smashes.”

What challenges does Sean Clifford present the defense?

“He’s the point guard. He distributes the ball really well. It’s a numbers game in a lot of aspects and he understands when you’re light, when you’ve got too many people in a certain direction and then he can make you pay. They drop back more so than really anybody we’ve seen, so they’ve got a good package for him, so he reads it well, gets it out on time, obviously. Got some really good players on the perimeter. That’s somebody we’ve gotta handle as well.”

How has the secondary improved since January, especially in the last few weeks?

“The things I’ve been telling everybody since we got here, it’s been a steady improvement. Last week, I forget who I was telling, but you can close your eyes and I can see the play — pre and post-snap communication, post-snap alerts (snap) — when you’re starting to hear that, they’re starting to really get it. We’re not there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but that was cool. The communication the last two weeks have been really improved, so I’m happy with that.”

Has he changed his own communication style?

“Communication-wise, like interpersonal? No, it’s really the same. I had a couple of conversations with guys last week, like, hey man, we told you this from the get-go. Expectations, standards, the way you play is you practice really well and prepare, you put it on tape during practice and that’s what earns you an opportunity in the game. Now you’ve gotta go perform when the game hits. Then opportunities keep coming. If you don’t do it, we give someone else the opportunity and they’re fully aware of when those opportunities are coming and going.

“I think you definitely create competition throughout the year as well. You can’t just give people, just because we’re in this week or whatever, doesn’t mean it’s still peoples’ jobs. You’ve gotta go prove it everyday with how you prepare and how you go practice. I think that’s how you have great practices, when they’re competitive.”

Is there a philosophy he has when it comes to facing an elite receiver?

“There’s several things you can do, I’m not going to tell you that right now!”

More broadly though?

“I think there’s a lot of things going on there. One, your defensive personnel, the situation in the game. You can’t double a guy every snap. But absolutely, yeah. You can travel a guy, you could double him, you could double him inside and out, you could double him high and low, and double him with a DB, double him with a linebacker. You could drop a guy to that direction, you could travel a guy if you have an elite corner. You can travel your elite corner with their second-best player and then double the best player. There’s all sorts of things you can do. Shoot, you learn that from football Twitter. I’m on that, too!”

Have offenses started to figure out his scheme and does that lead to more adjustments?

“Yeah, I think the thing that shows up more so is you see somewhat similar formations from week-to-week that you don’t necessarily see on the team’s previous tape. I think they’re looking for things out of certain presentations. Whether we personnel it or we disguise it, we go into the game with a different game plan, so to speak, so we change it up. But there’s consistency in some of the formations that we’re seeing. I mean, you can use that to your advantage as well, when they think they’re getting something and you take it away from them.”

How much of a learning process has it been for him?

“Yeah, I’m learning a lot. If you’re not learning and you’re not, from a week-to-week, day-to-day process, then you’re not doing your job. There’s so many things now — a week ago or six months ago, just constant. How we practice, how we prepare the guys. Big points of emphasis, types of plays you have to defend. All those things are, it’s a constant evolution. I think if you’re sticking to your guns, we did it this way against Washington, well, I think that’s a mistake. Definitely learning a lot every day.”

What's the process like crafting the team's game specific goals?

“I think it goes back to principles vs. methods. There’s certain principles of how we believe you play defense. You want them to throw it in the red zone — was it Junior (Colson) talking about that? You don’t want to let them run it in the red zone, it’s a cardinal rule. I think you just get the guys together and be like, ‘Hey, look — this is what we want it to look like. Now, how can we tell? What are some things we can talk about week-to-week, measuring sticks, of hey, did we live up to the billing? Hey, we won the game, but — or we lost the game — but what did we do well? What did we not do well?’ It’s a point of consistency every week.

“There’s not a lot of stats on there. We kinda just took what would win the Big Ten, what would be the top in the country, so you’re kinda chasing perfection a little bit. So, if you’re hitting those goals, you’re doing a helluva job. I couldn’t tell you our stats. I couldn’t tell you. It’s more what it looks like, feels like type of thing that we’re chasing.”

How did Michael Barrett respond to having more playing time?

“Mike’s — I know it doesn’t sound like it from the snap counts, but he’s doing a great job for us. He’s on all four phases of special teams, he’s dang near the special teams captain of the team. I know Jay Harbaugh loves him. He’s a personal protector, which, I joke around that gives you immunity in the NFL. He’s a starter in the spring, some things happened in the beginning of training camp. Junior and Nikhai played really, really well when he wasn’t full go all the time. It wasn’t a shot on Mike, it’s more of attributed to 41 and 25 that those guys are playing so well. And then there finally popped up a situation where, well, shoot — Mike’s been practicing well, he earns an opportunity, here’s an opportunity. We didn’t blink an eye. Somebody told me he ended up with 40-something snaps. It wasn’t necessarily the game plan, but it wasn’t necessarily something we were trying to avoid, either. I think it’s just attributed to him staying ready. If his opportunity arose during games when he’s gotten in later in games, he’s played well. So, it’s like I said earlier: it’s a matter of consistency and performance, being prepared, executing in practice in situations that we put you in, and then, when your opportunity arises in the game, taking advantage of it. We’re a better football team for it.

“Happy for Mike, happy for us, because we’re winning. So, expect him to keep it up.”

What has he seen from Taylor Upshaw?

“It’s the same story. You go back with Taylor, earlier in the year, he’s playing 20-30 snaps per game. He played a few snaps against Nebraska and ended up getting banged up, so he’s banged up there, he’s out for a week or two. He goes back, practices well — what do you know? There’s a role for you. And he took advantage of his role. Since we got here, he’s one of our top players. Talented guy, he’s tough, he plays extremely hard, and he gives us some positional flexibility as well. Similar story to Mike Barrett.”

On the players calling him a genius

“We’re working together, right? I’m not necessarily comfortable with genius. That’s not a — it’s more like, hey, I’m glad to have trust in what we’re coaching them. I’m glad they’re getting better, they feel like we’re putting them in the position to win the game. When we don’t do that, I’m sick to my stomach. Everybody takes responsibility for their area, coaches included.

“This is just attributed to our relationship with the guys. We love our players and every time we’ve asked them to do anything, they come back and they smash it. We’ll have a bad practice, they’ll respond. We’ll misplay some plays, they fix it, they come in early. They come meet with the coach–they just continue to bounce back, to answer the bell. The only thing you can ask as a coach. So, yeah — we work well together.”

Is Todd Grantham's firing at Florida a reminder of how fickle the sport can be?

“He’s one of my mentors and he’s a great football coach. You hate to see anybody lose their job. I have all the respect in the world for Todd. About 90% of what I know in this football game I know from working for him. He’s had a great career and he’ll continue to have a great career.”

How do David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson play off each other?

“It’s a blessing to have multiple guys so we’re not just keying in on one all the time. Pass rush is all four or five guys working together, so you can’t forget the guys in the middle, OK? There’s six pass rush lanes, there’s only four guys rushing them. You know what I mean? It’s really all four guys, whether it’s a pressure or a four-man rush, those guys have to work — now look: those guys are elite. So a lot of times, the guys in the middle are taking a back seat to the guys on the edge. So they have to be unselfish as well. If you want to give those guys freedom to do what they do, you can’t have freelancers up the middle. So those guys are sacrificing for the team, no matter who that is.

“It’s the same thing: they come in, they get the pass rush playing, they execute it, they rewatch it, they come back, we refine it, we do it again. It’s a constant, constant process. When you start to feel the results of that, when you have some success, it gives you some confidence and you go from there.”

Does he teach Ojabo to cause QB fumbles?

“I mean, I’m not gonna take credit for that. The ball’s the issue! We’re trying to take the ball of him at all times and the guy that fumbles the ball the most is the quarterback. So we’re always trying to get the ball off of him and that’s the best opportunity to get it.”

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