Jim Harbaugh tasked Jesse Minter with leading Michigan's defense, hiring him from Vanderbilt.
Jim Harbaugh tasked Jesse Minter with leading Michigan's defense, hiring him from Vanderbilt. Julia Schachinger/Daily. Buy this photo.

An offseason marked by defensive turnover — both on the roster and the coaching staff — means that Jesse Minter has big shoes to fill. 

Michigan’s first-year defensive coordinator is tasked with replacing Mike Macdonald, the architect of a stunning defensive turnaround that vaulted the Wolverines past Ohio State and into the College Football Playoff for the first time ever last season. 

Thursday, Minter noted that he is “not worried about replacing” anyone, a direct reference to the holes left behind by All-American edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. That attitude, though, is just as pertinent to Minter’s own situation. 

“We both look at the game similarly,” Minter said, noting the comparisons between him and Macdonald. “We both have a fairly calm demeanor about us that allows us to stay in the moment and not ride the wave of emotion.

“But we’re different people.” 

Comparisons between Macdonald and Minter will continue to flow. That is merely how sports operate; players and coaches are tied to their predecessors, fair or not. 

But the Minter-Macdonald allusions are bound to be plentiful, considering their shared history. From 2017-2020, they worked alongside one another under John Harbaugh on the Ravens coaching staff — Minter as the defensive backs coach and Macdonald first with the defensive backs, then with the linebackers. 

Last winter, when searching for Don Brown’s successor, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh received two recommendations from his brother: Macdonald and Minter. 

He went with Macdonald. 

This winter, in the wake of Macdonald’s return to Baltimore to become Ravens defensive coordinator, Harbaugh circled back to Minter. 

“We look at the game at different times,” Minter said, describing the difference between him and Macdonald. “… I look at, as a DB coach my whole career, I kinda see things from the back to the front.” 

Macdonald, Minter says, has the reverse vantage point. 

But Minter tried not to dwell on Macdonald, even as questions circled back to him. He cares little for comparisons, with his focus — rightfully so — on modeling a defense. 

It’s a process that hasn’t necessarily been easy. 

“Every situation is its own,” explained Minter, who called plays last season as Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator. “The system we ran at Vanderbilt was built for Vanderbilt. We had a defensive head coach. We kind of put some stuff together based off both of our paths, both of our histories.” 

He’s taken that same approach at Michigan. 

“I said, ‘Coach Harbaugh, paint me a picture of what you want the defense to look like, as a head coach,’” Minter recalled. “‘OK, now let’s get our paintbrushes out so we can make it happen.’”

Before he could paint, Minter had to learn. There was little terminology or system carry over from Vanderbilt to Michigan, Minter said. But, the number of defensive structures in the sport are finite. Plus, Minter is well-versed in Harbaugh philosophy from his time in Baltimore. 

“There’s carry over in how you play defense and what’s important to play good defense,” Minter said of his transition from Vanderbilt. 

Towards the end of his press conference, Minter harkened back to a lesson he learned in 2011, as a first-time play-caller for Indiana State. 

“I was young and you sorta ride the wave, ride the emotion of the game at times when you first start,” Minter said. “It’s the ability to take yourself out of the game — the good and the bad — and focus on the next play. … As a play-caller, the more you do it, the more you understand that one play is not gonna make the difference. It’s about putting the guys in the best position every play.” 

There’s a lot of Harbaugh in that statement, focusing on granular aspects and minimizing the bigger picture. It’s worth noting that the best Harbaugh teams, like last year’s, often mirror the personality and charisma of their coach. Minter wants that to happen with his defense, too, with a shared belief in a “next play mentality.” 

Though it won’t be unveiled until the season-opener against Colorado State on Sept. 3, Minter’s defense is taking shape. And it’s drawn rave reviews, with Harbaugh noting at Big Ten Media Days that “there’s a sneaking suspicion” that this year’s defense could be even better than last year. 

If that comes to fruition, perhaps Minter can outrun Macdonald’s shadow.