ANN ARBOR, Mich. — After hearing all offseason that the defense for Michigan football would be a pleasant surprise, it turns out such has been the case. Credit Mike Macdonald, the new defensive coordinator, who came aboard this offseason after spending the last several years as the Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach.
For the second time in his young stint as the Wolverines DC, Macdonald met with the media — and it’s the first time since before fall camp started in August. He shared what he’s seen from his side of the ball, what he’s liked, how they’ve performed in games, what he’s looking for, the atmosphere against Washington and more.
On Washington throwing every offense at them and the defensive adjustments
"Just a different couple formations we'd seen on tape. Some of the plays we were able to anticipate, just did it out of different personnel groups that they had shown. Something we had thought was a possibility. The adjusting -- I think we pretty much stuck to the same game plan throughout the game. Wasn't much to adjust to, it was just getting guys to communicate, getting the right people out there and getting lined up and ready to roll. Guys did a great job with it -- under fire, bullets are live, so to speak. The sense of urgency was there, the communication really improved. Pleased, definitely, with the first half."
What he was most pleased with through two games
"We challenged them after the first game. We said, 'Hey, is this what we envisioned as a defense?' really in terms of physicality, communicating-wise and all-out effort to the ball and I think everybody to a man said no. Really, after this week, that's what we'd like it to look like on tape in terms of how fast we're playing. That's definitely the standard we want to live up to at this point. The expectations will keep it going."
How he's felt calling plays
"There's always room for improvement. There's calls where you go back and say, 'Ah, I should have done this,' or, 'I should have done that,' or, 'We could have prepped this better,' or, 'We could have gone over this situation better with the guys.' That's always a work in progress. It was that way in Baltimore, it was that way in Georgia. That's my philosophy is just -- you've gotta look at yourself, too, to make sure you keep putting the guys in the best situation possible. "But, it feels like practice. You go out there and identify the situation and for the most part, we've talked about the situations that arise. Really just stick to the plan. It helps when you communicate to the guys what you're gonna call in certain situations because then they're anticipating you calling that. So now, it's like if you don't call that, then you're doing them a disservice. It's nice to have figured it out before the situation actually comes up."
How the secondary has grown since last year
"I think on a day-by-day basis, they get a better feel for the spirit of each call and the communication that's required to go with it. They're just getting a better feel for how the whole thing fits together. And to be a great secondary, you've gotta be loud, you've gotta communicate, you've gotta work as one, and that includes the linebackers that are dropping into coverage, as well. "So, it's a work in progress, just like the entire defense. But they're making strides every day."
On the secondary having to face off against Rocky Lombardi again
"Oh yeah. They understand what's in stake in the game, and they're ready to go."
On getting close to intercepting the ball but not getting them
"That's always been a big emphasis. We haven't turned the ball as much as we'd like to so we definitely need to capitalize on those. We work on that daily and expect to move on that moving forward."
How he addresses the line between a PBU and an interception
"It's all about the relationship of where you are to the ball and your assignment. If you're in man, you play it differently than when you're in zone and so forth. It's kind of a play-by-play thing. I wouldn't say that they're making the wrong decision of how to play the ball, it's just the matter of how they're coming down with it."
Self-scouting as a playcaller so he's not predictable
"Absolutely. It's this way at every level, but they're playing what they've seen on tape. So you have to understand how we've been playing and the things that they're seeing and the mistakes that we've made to try to really have a great grasp of how they're gonna attack you. Two games is not a great sample size -- same thing with Northern Illinois. They're operating differently on a game-to-game basis than they did last year or the year before that. A lot of it's gonna be identifying how a team's going to be playing it during the game. I think we have enough in our toolbag, so to speak, that we can adjust on the fly. But we definitely need to be aware of that."
On Thomas Hammock (NIU coach) having familiarity from their time at Baltimore
"He might. I really respect Coach Hammock. We spent a lot of time together in Baltimore. He definitely knows his stuff. I really think he's a great coach. He definitely knows the Baltimore scheme, whether or not that's what we run here -- it's a game-to-game basis."
His first impression of Kris Jenkins
"Kris Jenkins, the first impression I had of him was he was a great technician. The fundamentals we ask him to execute he picks up very, very quickly. He's heavy-handed for his size, so he's not exactly a prototypical 5-technique, so to speak, like a Derek Wolfe or a Calais Campbell. But he's very effective in what we're asking him to do, so it's a pleasant surprise to see how well he can pick it up and carve out a niche in this defense. Proud of how he's been playing."
How he treats opponents game planning for Aidan Hutchinson
"Don't get in his way! Just try to not -- look, when you have great players, you try to put them in positions to succeed and the expectation is that he plays at the level he's playing at. We'll have wrinkles where we move him around, but we don't want to overthink it either. We don't want to get in the way of that. But Aidan's doing a great job. I think when you look at how you want to play football for Michigan, he's the first guy you look at."
How much does the defense feed off of Hutchinson?
"Shoot, I think there's a lot of guys who we feed off their energy. I think the energy of the crowd -- that was -- I've never seen anything like that! That was crazy. That was an unbelievable atmosphere, so shoutout to our fans, that was incredible. But the rest of the guys on our defense, I think we've got a lot of guys that bring a lot of energy. It's more collective than just Aidan. "One thing we preach is it's not easy to go out there and make plays. When you make plays, go celebrate with your teammates, go get a picture on the sideline. Have fun man! We work too hard at this to go out there and make a play and just be all bummed out about it. Have some fun!"
What have recruits' reactions been to the first two weeks?
"I hope they see what we told them it was going to be! You know what I mean? We kinda told them how we were gonna operate from day one and I'd like to think that they're seeing that come to fruition in real life. I think that's what they're seeing. I hope that's what they're seeing. They can take our word for it -- we're not just blowing smoke up their butt! Yeah."
Was there a moment he took in the crowd?
"Running out of the tunnel you always take a deep breath and think, 'That's a lot of people!' They're pretty wild, too. The first part of the game was awesome. That was unheard of. That was great. That was special."
How good are Aidan Hutchinson's hands?
"We don't want our guys to have too much stuff because then you don't get good at anything. But I'd say Aidan has about a 100 mph four-seamer and then a 96 mph two-seamer to go with it -- with a 93 mph slider. So, if that makes sense."
How much does he enjoy the offense running the ball?
"It's really easy to play great defense when you're not out there! 300-yard rushing games we'll take every single time. Great job by our offense. There's never any panic to start the game. We knew what was about to happen, it was just a matter of time. We have all the confidence in the world in them -- they played a great game and controlled the clock. It was a great complementary team win. Not to sound too cliche, but special teams played great. We stopped them when we needed to early on. We'd like to finish the game a little bit better but offense really controlled the clock. And our guys were fresh when they had to go out there. I think that helps -- you play hard when you're not gassed all the time."
How has the defensive scheme helped the run game?
"I appreciate that question -- I wouldn't toot our own horn on that one. That credit goes to the offense and the mentality that Coach Harbaugh has instilled in the program. Coach Sherrone Moore does a great job. Coach Gatt does a great job setting the whole thing up. They gave us a lot of trouble in training camp that really questioned, 'OK, are we sure we're playing this the right way? Are we sure the rule structure is set up so we can actually execute and the guys can go out and stop stuff?' Complementary in that way. I think it was more of an iron sharpens iron sort of thing throughout training camp rather than having them respond to us."
His impressions of Vincent Gray so far
"Man, I'm really pleased with Vince. I see more of his personality the last month or two. He's a really sharp guy. It's great to see him make the plays we expect him to make and have some confidence with it. I think you'll see that continually grow throughout the season. Just like the rest of the secondary, it's got a better grasp of what we're asking the whole unit to execute on a per-play basis. And when you understand what's going on, you play faster, you play with more confidence."
The variety of offenses at the college level
"Yeah, it's funny. We don't go into the games with gigantic menus, but they're definitely different. They're definitely different. We want to stick to the stuff that we can do well and I think we're still in the process of figuring that out. But it's a different menu for sure and the offense -- there's some great offensive minds out there and they present you a lot of problems on a week-to-week basis. You can put Northern Illinois right up there with the rest of them. They do some good things that will be a great challenge for us."
On Josh Ross' rushing ability as a linebacker
"Well, that gives him a role on third down, so now you can keep the same people out there and present different looks. I give a shoutout to Coach Helow on that one. He does a good job of teaching those guys how to blitz with speed and intensity. Pace is a big point of emphasis with him. And Josh has a great knack for it. He coaches me up on a couple of the moves he does and different than I've taught the guys I've worked with in the past and probably a little bit better, to be quite frank. Credit goes to him and Coach Helow on that one."
On having a versatile rotation and if that's the plan
"I'd say both (as far if the plan is season-long or weekly). I tell our players: if you're playing well enough to play, you're gonna play. And then we're gonna try to figure out what you do well and put you in those situations. A lot of it's matchup-based. I'd say it's intentional, but it's also, hey, let's play the guys that can help us win."
First-time contributors and shortening the learning curve
"I don't think so (saying he didn't do anything to shorten the learning curve). The first game, the captains said 50% of our defense hadn't played in front of fans before. That was kinda wild. So there was a big jump on a lot of those guys from Week 1 to Week 2. I'm proud of how they responded. It's not easy to go out and play in front of all of those people after you just do it in front of practice the whole time. Kudos to them!"