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Meet the Georgian-rooted Michigan defensive coordinator who changed the Wolverines

Mike Macdonald’s relationship with Xarvia Smith did not start well.

Shortly after Smith was hired as the head coach at Centennial High School in Roswell, Ga., Macdonald, a senior team captain, called him up and invited him to lunch.

“I laughed at him and said, ‘Mike, you and I will never have lunch together. I’m not your friend, I’m your coach. After you graduate we’ll all have lunches. that you want, ”Smith said. recalled. “That’s kind of how we started our relationship.”

Two years later, after Macdonald enrolled at the University of Georgia to study finance, he called his former coach, who had been hired at neighboring Cedar Shoals High School in Athens. Macdonald wanted a job and Smith hired him as a freshman head coach and defensive analyst for the varsity team.

It was the start of Macdonald’s meteoric rise in coaching, which will now see him on the big stage with him coordinating Michigan’s No.2 defense against Georgia’s No.3 in a college football playoff semifinals at the Capital One Orange Bowl (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app). As defensive coordinator for the first time, Macdonald, 34, led a unit that placed fourth in the FBS in defensive scorers (16.1 points) and 11th in total defense (316.2 yards) this season.

“I’m not surprised because we kind of laid out the plan for him about 10 years ago,” Smith said. “That’s how it was supposed to be. After he finished college, I said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to be a coordinator and then a head coach.'”

Smith remembers Macdonald laughing at his prediction. “You watch,” Smith told him.

In his first season as coach of Cedar Shoals High freshman, Macdonald’s defense recorded six shutouts in a 7-0 campaign in 2008. Two years later, the defensive coordinator of Georgia-era Todd Grantham hired Macdonald as a graduate assistant after another GA recommended him. .

“He was conscientious and could tell right away that he was smart,” Grantham said. “He was a business owner and he was going to be a CPA. I used to laugh at him all the time and say, ‘Dude, you gotta do this. “But he wanted to coach football and was my GA for two years and did a great job. He was very detailed and one of those guys where you could tell him something and he didn’t have to come see me. if he was in a situation where he had to find something. He would find it and get things done. “

Macdonald spent four seasons with Georgia on staff from 2010 to 2013, the last three working with security as a defensive quality control coach.

“He was a strong guy for sure,” said former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. “He was the smartest guy in the room. There are a lot of smart guys who can’t communicate very well. They expect everyone to figure things out as quickly as they do. Complicated simple and making it more understandable. I always felt like he was really good at it. You can walk into a room and make everyone’s head spin, or you can be a guy where people say: “This guy taught me something. “”

Macdonald completed a Masters in Sports Management at Georgia in 2013 and was ready to step down as a coach. He even signed a contract to accept a job at a global accounting firm. But with the help of Auburn’s defensive line coach Rodney Garner, Macdonald interned with the Baltimore Ravens instead in 2014.

“Simply extremely lucky,” Macdonald said. “Talk about the luck of the coin toss. Dude, am I blessed that this happened, [or] otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here. “

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was impressed enough to hire Macdonald as a defensive assistant the following year. He coached the Ravens’ defensive backs in 2017 and linebackers from 2018 to 2020. What surprised Smith most was Macdonald’s ability to coach NFL players at such a young age – and without a lot of time. gaming experience itself. Macdonald missed his last season in high school with neck and knee injuries and did not play in college.

“I had the same fear as a young coach: ‘Why would anyone listen to me?'” Said Richt. “But what you learn is if you have knowledge, that you can teach and help a guy improve, then they respect that. They seek that and hope that. They also want respect as a nobody. They don’t. I don’t want a guy who will push them away. They want a guy who can communicate and help a guy be better at what he wants to be good. That’s why guys like that quickly gain respect. “

“He was the smartest guy in the room. There are a lot of smart guys who can’t communicate very well.… One of the gifts of teaching is to make something a little complicated simple and to make it more understandable. I always felt like he was really good at it. ”

Former Georgia coach Mark Richt

Macdonald’s move to Michigan took a leap of faith from Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, John’s younger brother, and himself. The Wolverines were coming out of a 2-4 campaign in the abridged 2020 season. Harbaugh was in the hot seat after his teams failed to beat rival Ohio State in five tries and haven’t won the Big Ten in six seasons, and he suffered a pay cut as part of a contract extension loaded with incentives. Harbaugh restructured his staff and hiring Macdonald, who had never been a coordinator, was a gamble.

Macdonald replaced longtime defensive coordinator Don Brown, who is now Massachusetts head coach. In Brown’s last season, the defense was 87th in yards allowed per game, 59th for yards allowed per game, and was also last in rushing and passing yards allowed per game.

“I didn’t really think about … the hot seat,” Macdonald said. “Frankly, I didn’t really know that. I knew Coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan and the reputation of that college. I mean, it was honestly pretty straightforward. And then just my personal goals, I always wanted to. being a defensive coordinator at any level, and that’s high-profile football. It doesn’t get bigger than that. “

Last spring, Macdonald promised the Wolverines would use multiple gazes to try and confuse offenses, much like the Ravens do. The Wolverines played area, man-to-man coverage and a matched model in the high school.

Sometimes Michigan’s defense lines up in a 3-4 pattern, sometimes it’s a 4-3, and other times it’s even a 6-1 or 6-2. More than anything, Macdonald has tried to craft plans that utilize the skills of his players. In November, Ohio State coach Ryan Day described Michigan’s defense as more “NFL-oriented” than it has been in the past.

With Macdonald’s help, Harbaugh finally made a difference in his alma mater. The Wolverines finished 12-1, blew the Buckeyes 42-27 and won their first Big Ten title in 17 years.

“I think he brings us a new take on the game,” said defensive tackle Mazi Smith. “I think the way he implements all the things he’s trying to teach us and get us to do, he does it fast, he does it efficiently. He doesn’t leave meat on the bone. I think. correct [he uses] his staff to the best of our ability, he has packages for everyone, and he tries to get the best of us, and we want to do that. “

Rarely used players of the past, such as linebacker David Ojabo, cornerback DJ Turner and Smith, have become bona fide stars in Macdonald’s schedule this season.

“Dude, he just gave me a chance,” said Turner, who failed to tackle each of his first two seasons before intercepting two assists and defending nine more this year.

Ojabo, a Scottish junior, pulled off a tackle in 2020 before exploding for 11 sacks with five forced fumbles this season.

“[Macdonald] just made the game even more fun, ”Ojabo said.

Now the Wolverines are having a blast and are just one win away from entering the CFP National Championship.

Smith, who gave Macdonald his first coaching break more than a decade ago, still keeps in touch with his former player and assistant.

“I tell him all the time that we have to have lunch,” Smith said.