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Mike Macdonald Shares His Vision For Michigan's Defense

To replace Don Brown as Michigan's defensive coordinator, head coach Jim Harbaugh tapped a rising star in the business in 33-year-old Mike Macdonald, who was previously the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens (and with the organization for seven seasons) and a graduate assistant with the Georgia Bulldogs.

Macdonald didn't play football past the high school level, but he got an early jump start on his coaching career, assisting for his alma mater, Cedar Shoals (Ga.) High, while he was attending Georgia as a student. His career was off and running from there, and he knew the profession was the right fit for him.

"I fell in love with it, I fell in love with relationships," Macdonald said on the In The Trenches podcast with Jon Jansen. "There’s a secret spark inside you when you connect with a guy and you help him achieve success and they start smiling. It’s just a magical thing and it’s a powerful thing."

That kind of relationship building is what Macdonald is in the midst of doing right now at Michigan, having been hired in mid-January. After a two-week, university-mandated pause from in-person activities, Macdonald and the four other new coaches on Michigan's staff are putting faces to names in the building, in addition to the Zoom calls that have been ongoing since they've been hired.

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Michigan Wolverines football defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
Michigan Wolverines football defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. (

While Macdonald noted it's important for a coach to "be himself," he learned a lot from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Jim's brother, and the other coaches he's been around — and that will help him in his new job.

"In terms of John as a leader, he’s a real deal," Macdonald said, noting he sees plenty of similarities between the Ravens' front office and coaching staff and Michigan's leadership under director of athletics Warde Manuel and Jim Harbaugh.

He's also learned from the different job responsibilities he's had, big and small. From being a high school assistant coach, to a student assistant and graduate assistant at Georgia — setting up tables and organizing team meals were some of more tedious tasks mentioned — Macdonald has seen football organizations from every point of view, and he believes will aid him now that he's overseeing the defense.

"I’ve expressed that to our staff, we’ve gotta have a startup mentality," Macdonald said. "We’re kind of like our own startup business right here. Everyone’s gonna have a hand in forwarding our plan and getting to our goal, and that’s the way it was when I first started [as a coach]."

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While the Ravens run a 3-4 defense, Macdonald revealed that his units will be multiple. And though he didn't go into detail — understandably — on what exact schemes he is installing in Ann Arbor, Macdonald did lay out part of his vision, which is very principle-driven.

"The first thing is, we need everybody pulling in the same direction," Macdonald said. "And you earn that opportunity, and that’s started with our meetings when the guys came back here and on Zoom. But whatever X’s and O’s you decide to do, it has to be everybody playing for and fighting for one another.

"And that’s something that I’ve learned over the course of my career. You get into the game and you love the strategy, and you love having answers and you love being multiple and you like blitzes that look like spaghetti on a page — and trust me, we’re going to be multiple and we’re going to get after people and we’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to look like we’re blitzing when we’re not gonna blitz, we’re going to play man, we’re going to play zone, we’re going to be complementary — but it’s how you play that makes the difference.

"Do you strike blockers, do you stay square, do you communicate, do you sign and cosign, do you guys run to the ball like your hair’s on fire? Those are the things that are important, so that’s the standard of how we’re going to operate. If you can visualize 11 guys playing for one another every down for 60 minutes, that’s where we’re going.

"That was at the first meeting we had with out guys, is how do we want to play, what’s our standard? And now that we’ve agreed on it, and we’re in the process now of discussing, this is how it’s supposed to look. Now when we don’t meet the standard, they understand that and that’s how we can get [there]. So we’re always chasing that vision."

Michigan Wolverines football defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is one of five new assistant coaches on U-M's staff.
Michigan Wolverines football defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is one of five new assistant coaches on U-M's staff. (AP Images)

Macdonald added that they'll work to both install his system and morph the system based on what the players do well, saying the balance is "somewhere in the middle."

While Macdonald has never called plays and coordinated a defense, he's confident in himself to do the job, just as Harbaugh was confident enough to bring him in.

"I mean, this is why you get into coaching," Macdonald said. "I believe in our process and our players and our scheme.

"As a position coach, you have a lot to do with the weekly game plan. The coordinator is the guy calling it on game day, but he’s really leaning on the rest of his coaches as well to give him the information that he needs, so he can digest it and understand how he wants to attack.

"It is a great challenge and a great responsibility, but bring it on. Let’s go. This is a dream of mine, and we’re going to work our tails off to be successful."

There's still plenty of time between now and the Sept. 4 season-opener against Western Michigan, but Macdonald is amped up to be on the sidelines in the Maize and Blue.

"I’m praying that thing is packed come game one," he said. "I’m praying. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, it’s a special, special place, and I’ll be honored to take the field when we tee it up."

'Getting The Right People On The Bus'

After Macdonald was hired, he was able to work with Harbaugh to finalize the rest of the defensive coaching staff. The Wolverines retained defensive line coach Shaun Nua (third year) and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary (second season), while they added co-defensive coordinator Maurice Linguist and safeties coach George Helow.

"The first thing is, I wanted people that weren’t just like me," Macdonald explained of his hiring philosophy. "You want guys with different backgrounds, different sort of schemes they’ve been a part of, different areas of the country they’ve come from, different experiences that we can all come into the same room and use that to our advantage — that was the first thing.

"The second thing is, it’s about getting the right people on the bus before you go anywhere. So you gotta be the right type of person — you’ve got to be a great teacher, you’ve got to be a great communicator, you’ve got to have high character.

"The X’s and O’s thing, all that stuff is secondary. I know you want, ‘This guy is an expert at whatever.’ That’s secondary, that’s great, that’s the cherry on top. And we’ve got great guys, really smart coaches that know what they’re doing. But from my perspective, it’s getting the right people and the right type of person in the room, because those are the guys that are communicating with our players the most, and they’ll take on the personality of their coach. So if it’s the wrong personality or it’s the wrong type of guy, that’s not a good start.

"I believe in the guys that we have, and I think they’re all high-character individuals. They have the players’ interests at heart, and it’s all about team first. As long as we can stay on that path and stay together with it, we’ve got a chance. The minute that you get guys going in different directions, you’re in trouble. I can say I’m excited about the people in our room, because I know we’re starting on the right track. I’m fired up on that end."


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