Six years ago, Mike Macdonald was nearly ready to move on from football. He signed an offer to work in KPMG’s consulting wing after finishing a stint on Georgia’s coaching staff, but a few days later, his phone rang.
The Baltimore Ravens were on the other line, ready to make Macdonald an offer to join the coaching staff as a defensive intern.
“When Baltimore called, I quickly called (KPMG) and said, ‘You’re going to have to rip up that contract,’ ” Macdonald said during a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday. “It felt weird signing that back in the day, it felt like I was giving up, it was just a bad feeling that didn’t sit well with me.”
Now, Macdonald arrives in Ann Arbor after a seven-year stint with the Ravens, where he worked under Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s brother, John. He graduated from intern to assistant in 2014 and earned a promotion to defensive backs coach in 2017, when his unit ranked No. 1 in the NFL with 34 turnovers. He coached Baltimore’s linebackers from 2018-20 before accepting an offer to join the Wolverines’ staff as a co-defensive coordinator in January.
At 33 years old, Macdonald is set to lead the youngest defensive staff of the Harbaugh era. The defensive assistants are almost all brand new, with the lone holdover being third-year defensive line coach Shaun Nua. With spring practices now underway, Macdonald is leading the charge as Michigan’s defense works toward an identity.
“We’re 10, 11 (assistant coaches) sitting in a room, dreaming up what we want it to look like, how we want it to operate and you literally work from the ground floor,” Macdonald said. “From details of ‘What do we call this formation? What do we call this receive? What are we gonna call on third-and-11 in a critical situation?’ It’s a blank canvas. … There’s different ways to play great football. It’s just we’re doing it our way now. It’s just a blank canvas for everyone.”
On Thursday, Macdonald touched on a number of schematic possibilities. The Ravens mainly ran a 3-4 defense during his seven years on staff, but he plans to bring 4-3 and 6-1 formation concepts to Ann Arbor. For a Michigan unit that ranked third-worst in the Big Ten in scoring defense last season, that could be a welcomed change.
Macdonald’s predecessor, Don Brown, was known for aggressive blitz packages, and the Wolverines spent the last five years recruiting players geared toward that style of play. Admittedly, that’s going to weigh into how the Wolverines’ staff decides to build a scheme during their first season.
“It’s going to be very much tailored to who can do what and the guys that we have on the roster,” Macdonald said. “That’s why it’s hard for me to tell you what it’s going to be because we do have different players and different skill sets 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.
Macdonald has been involved in calling plays at previous coaching stops, but it’s never been one of his primary responsibilities. This fall, he’ll share that duty with co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks backs coach Mo Linguist, who was a member of the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive staff last season.
Nonetheless, being a 33-year-old rookie play-caller makes the leap to defensive coordinator daunting. But this spring, having a blank slate and a new staff will allow the Wolverines to mold their defense in a way that’s unique to them.
That starts at the top with Macdonald, and he knows it.
“It’s going to be a team effort when we put together our call sheet and how we want to do it,” Macdonald said. “We’re going to use everybody’s opinions and their expertise on what we like and when. We’ll put together a great gameplan every week, I can assure you that. I can also assure you that I’ll be prepared come day one.”