FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – When the Michigan soccer program hired Mike Macdonald as its defensive coordinator in January, the response from fans and the media was almost unanimous:
At the time of his hiring, Macdonald was nowhere near the references of more conventional candidates for the position. He had spent six seasons as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens – including one as a defensive back coach and three as a linebacker coach – but had never led a defensive or called games before.
Macdonald was as unconventional as any employee could get. But now that Macdonald prepares his defense for the Wolverines’ first appearance in the college football playoffs, that uncertainty is hard to notice.
“It’s like pinching yourself,” Macdonald said on Tuesday. “I look at the microphone and it says Orange Bowl and it’s hard to believe we’re here. But it was a great, great experience and once again really grateful that (Jim Harbaugh) took a risk for a guy like me. “
Friday’s game will also be a homecoming of sorts for Macdonald, who studied finance in Georgia before serving as a defensive quality control assistant and coach for the soccer team from 2010 to 2013. With the Bulldogs he got to know the peculiarities of college football that he had never experienced as a player, from observing then-coach Mark Richt to developing a “really rough relationship with the printer,” as he calls it.
“It’s been a great day, man,” said Macdonald. “Just learning from Coach Richt and Coach (Todd) Grantham and Coach (Mike) Bobo and really what an organization is and how it works – just being on the ground floor and doing whatever it takes to help the team win was really valuable. “
The lessons he’s learned in that role are evident in Michigan’s defense this season. The pre-snap positioning of the defensive line, the linebackers ‘eye discipline at the reading option, and the cornerbacks’ ability to maintain leverage in cover all suggest the Wolverines were seriously missed under Don Brown. Michigan’s almost miraculous turnaround in defense – from 88th place in overall defense last season to 10th in 2021 – speaks for his realignment on player development as well as for the redesign of defense systems.
The way he treats his players goes back to Macdonald’s coaching roots. While still a student, Macdonald trained football in ninth grade at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia. Aside from the football basics, which he had always understood well, as a ninth grader coach, Macdonald taught how to build relationships that motivate athletes to grow.
“That was probably the most fun coaching so far this year,” said Macdonald. “… But talk about great people in this building – Trainer Xarvia Smith really taught me a lot about life, how to be a man, how to grow up, and how to take care of people. I still have great relationships with some of these players to this day. “
His players feel that too.
“He’s done a lot for me,” said junior cornerback DJ Turner. “Man, he just gave me a chance. We do a whole bunch of different projects and it’s just really good when he came along, the knowledge of football that he brought with him. “
Junior edge rusher David Ojabo added, “For me personally, the game was just fun again. As DJ said, he gave me the chance to play easy and have fun doing it. “
Fun doesn’t win soccer games, but the Wolverines’ success this season shows that it definitely doesn’t hurt. When Macdonald replaced Brown, he fundamentally changed almost every aspect of Michigan’s defense, from defending passes to preparing for the enemy. Macdonald’s influences are evident in each of these changes.
On Friday he will have the opportunity to showcase his coaching style against one of the programs that shaped him in the first place.
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