FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When the Michigan football program hired Mike Macdonald as its defensive coordinator in January, it drew a near unanimous reaction from fans and media alike:
At the time of his hiring, Macdonald had nowhere near the credentials of more conventional candidates for the job. He had spent six seasons as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens — including one as defensive backs coach and three as linebackers coach — but had never led a defense nor called plays before.
Macdonald was about as unconventional as a hire could get. But now, with Macdonald preparing his defense for the Wolverines’ first College Football Playoff appearance, that uncertainty is difficult to remember.
“It’s kind of like you’ve got to pinch yourself,” Macdonald said Tuesday. “I’m looking down at the microphone and it says Orange Bowl, and it’s kind of hard to believe that we’re here. But it’s been a great, great experience, and just again, really thankful for (Jim Harbaugh) taking a chance on a guy like me.”
Friday’s matchup will also be a homecoming of sorts 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 that he never experienced as a player, from observing then-coach Mark Richt to developing what he describes as “a really rough relationship with the printer.”
“Those were great days, man,” Macdonald said. “Just learning from coach Richt and coach (Todd) Grantham and coach (Mike) Bobo, and really just what makes an organization tick, how does it go — just being on the ground floor doing anything 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 read option and the cornerbacks’ ability to maintain leverage in coverage all point to an emphasis on details that the Wolverines seriously lacked 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 reimagining of defensive schemes.
The approach he’s taken with his players, too, can be traced back to Macdonald’s coaching roots. While still in undergrad, Macdonald coached ninth-grade football at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Ga. Beyond the football fundamentals that he’s always had a solid grasp on, coaching ninth graders taught Macdonald how to develop the relationships that motivate athletes to grow.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had coaching probably up to this year,” Macdonald said. “ … But talk about great people in that building — coach Xarvia Smith really taught me a lot about life and how to be a man and how to grow up and how to mentor people. I have some great relationships with some of those players still to this day.”
His players sense it, too.
“For me, he did a lot,” junior cornerback D.J. Turner said. “Man, he just gave me a chance. We do a whole bunch of different schemes, and it’s just really good when he came, the knowledge of football he brought with him.”
Added junior edge rusher David Ojabo: “Personally for me, he just made the game fun again. Like D.J. said, he gave me a chance to play loose and have fun doing it.”
Fun doesn’t win football games, but the Wolverines’ success this season shows that it definitely doesn’t hurt. When Macdonald replaced Brown, he fundamentally altered nearly every aspect of Michigan’s defense, from how it defends passes to how it prepares for opponents. Macdonald’s influences are visible in every one of those changes.
Friday, he’ll get a chance to showcase his coaching style against one of the very programs that shaped it in the first place.