Mike Macdonald working with 'a blank canvas' as he rebuilds Michigan football's defense

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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Mike Macdonald did not anticipate becoming Michigan football's new defensive coordinator this offseason.

The opportunity, Macdonald says, “was not on my radar.”

But the former Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach received a call about a job from Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh during the Ravens' playoff run. He had the blessing and support of John Harbaugh, Jim's brother and Baltimore's head coach. So even if Macdonald found himself “in shock” at first, the decision ultimately was not difficult.

“It really was a no-brainer in terms of trying to go after it with all my energy in focus while also trying to win a Super Bowl,” Macdonald said Thursday afternoon. “It’s pretty simple: It's the winningest program in college football, Jim Harbaugh is someone that I really respect and have been familiar with over the years, coming from John Harbaugh meant a lot to me as well. Put those three together, and it’s pretty simple.”

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Macdonald, 33, has been tasked with rebuilding Michigan's defense. It is a difficult job: En route to a 2-4 record in 2020, the Wolverines finished No. 89 in total defense and No. 95 in scoring defense. Their best overall player, defensive end Kwity Paye, is off to the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike MacDonald with Patrick Onwuasor (48) and Matthew Judon (99) in 2019.
Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike MacDonald with Patrick Onwuasor (48) and Matthew Judon (99) in 2019.

Macdonald, meanwhile, has never been the primary defensive play-caller, but is confident in his ability to turn things around.

“It’s a big leap I guess, on paper,” Macdonald said. “Just like any problem, you have to approach it by a process and have a goal in mind on how uncomfortable you want to be. I have had a very big influence in what we’re calling and when throughout my history, so I do feel comfortable putting together a game plan.

“... We’ll put together a great game plan every week, I can assure you that. I can also assure you that I’ll be prepared come day one.”

The good news for Macdonald and Michigan's new defensive staff:. The Wolverines have plenty of time to install the new defense. They are currently in their second week of spring practices.

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So far, Macdonald has approached his new job as if he were the head of a start-up company. Every day, he and the other defensive staffers get together and “work from the ground floor” on designing their new defense. They collaborate on each detail, from the names of certain formations, positions, situational play-calls and the recruiting board.

“It’s just a blank canvas for everyone,” Macdonald said. “... It should have a feel of all hands on deck and we’re in it together.”

He is still learning about his new players and what they can do. While Macdonald expects the Wolverines to learn the concepts he and his staff are currently teaching, he is still a proponent of tailoring scheme to talent.

“That’s why it’s hard for me to tell you what (defensive scheme is) going to be,” he said, “because we do have different players and different skillsets than places I’ve been in the past. But the principles are the same in terms of how you play and how you build out a defense.”

What Macdonald did say is the new defense will be flexible and will feature different fronts, disguises, blitzes and coverages.

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“Look, yeah, we’re gonna be multiple,” Macdonald said. “The best way I can describe our scheme is it’s gonna look a lot like the places I’ve been previously. But watch our Baltimore defense and tell me the times that we look like a 3-4. There’s gonna be a certain percentage there, but there’s going to be a lot of times we look like a 4-3, sometimes we’re gonna look like a 6-1, there’s sometimes we’re going to look like a 6-2, sometimes you’re not gonna know what the heck it looks like. It’s hard for me to say we’re gonna be a 3-4, per se.

“The thing about our defense that I think makes us unique is that it is a series of concepts that we teach. For example, there are things that we teach our guys that there’s no call involved with those concepts. We’re teaching this concept today, this concept tomorrow. We marry them together, there’s gonna be more of that, but you layer it over time and now it gives you the flexibility to build certain fronts, certain coverages, certain pressures. That allows you to one, let your guys do well what they do, and two, stop the offenses that you’re seeing.”

That might sound like a lot to learn — and Macdonald is no longer working with NFL players. But he has no inclination to speed up the learning process. Macdonald believes Michigan will get “everything we need installed by the time the season starts.” Right now, he's more concerned with precision than speed.

“The principles and the concepts will all be installed, but we’re all going to pace where our guys can get good at each thing before we move on to the next thing, if that makes sense,” Macdonald said. “The beauty of having spring practice and doing it early is that we don’t have to go take the field in two weeks, defend all these teams we are about to face. We have some time on our hands to take it at the correct pace, so we’re not going too fast.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Mike Macdonald approach as defensive coordinator