The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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160 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW "W ho is this guy?" That's what a segment of the Michigan fan base was asking when Jim Harbaugh hired Mike Mac- donald seemingly out of nowhere to coordi- nate his defense, replacing Don Brown. For- mer Texas head coach Charlie Strong, former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason and other more recognizable names had been bandied about, but the Baltimore Ravens' linebackers coach suddenly moved to the top of the list. He was just as quickly interviewed and accepted. His reward? A nice contract, certainly, but with it comes the responsibility of car- rying the weight of heavy expectations on his broad shoulders in his first year ever coordinating a defense. To some, it feels like a gamble for Har- baugh, a head coach coming off a 2-4 sea- son in which everything that could go wrong, seemed to. For all the talk of U-M's NFL Draft success this year after eight Wolverines were selected, three of those players opted out, three more were injured part or most of the year (including first-round pick and defensive end Kwity Paye), and then there were other key in- juries like sophomore end Aidan Hutchinson. Those remaining on defense didn't meet expectations and allowed 34.5 points per game; thus, the change. But Harbaugh sees things differently than most in assessing potential hires. His coach- ing tree has branched with guys similar to Macdonald — five from his Stanford staff alone, including current Cardinal coach David Shaw, would become head coaches —and his brother knew what traits he was seeking. "Mike was a [big] part of the defense," Harbaugh noted. "They restructured it a few years ago. … John was heavily involved in it. Mike was heavily involved in it. "… That feedback and John's recommen- dation — he really liked Mike. He was some- body that would probably be their next defen- sive coordinator. [John] cares about Michigan football and me as his brother, so that was one recommendation I knew I could count on." John Harbaugh confirmed as much during the season when asked at one of his weekly pressers if reports of Macdonald's imminent hiring were true. "I'll tell you what," he said. "As much as I love Michigan, and love my brother even way more than Michigan …" He paused. "Well, I like Michigan; I love my brother — we'll put it that way," he said. Simply put, he wouldn't part with one of his brighter young coaches for just anybody. The two brothers are only 15 months apart and spent years sharing a bedroom, John recalled when his brother first took the job in Ann Ar- bor. They spent hours sharing their secrets and becoming as tight as brothers could be. "We know how each other thinks. It's not like we have to explain how we're thinking to one another," John Harbaugh said back in 2015. "Usually, we're three steps ahead with each other in the conversations. "… And there was that competitive part of it. I always rooted for Jim wherever he played — here and in the pros. I lived and died with his games." He still does — which, again, is one of the reasons he was happy to help when his brother called for advice, and one reason Michigan fans should embrace Macdonald and fellow former Ravens assistant Matt Weiss, now Jim's new quarterback coach at Michigan. "There's been a lot of exchange between them," Michigan football author and U-M professor John U. Bacon said. "I think John Harbaugh is a fantastic judge of character, and obviously coaching ability. These guys didn't arrive unknown." Macdonald, especially, has made an impact in the early going. There's been no bluster, no predictions — just nose-to-the-grindstone work. Former U-M linebacker and graduate assistant James Ross felt it immediately upon meeting him before leaving this spring to coach linebackers at Hope College in Hol- land, Mich. His brother, redshirt junior line- backer Josh Ross, has since confirmed it. "Josh is really loving him," he said. "The relationship they're having … it's more the NFL approach of being really close to your coordinator; being able to call him and just talk. There's no uncomfortability, and he's so relatable. "That's no knock on anyone; it just what it is. Guys are kind of gravitating to him, and it helps when guys see you coached some elite players." And it helped Harbaugh to know one of his guys was so highly recommended by one of the people he admires most. "I respect so many people in football … so many coaches and people that I trust and respect," Harbaugh said. "I get their advice that I take very seriously when they recom- mend somebody, and no one more than my brother John. He's at the top of that list. "That's the way we went. I'm glad that we did." Time will tell if it was the right move, but like his brother, Jim Harbaugh has been right with hires before. It shouldn't shock anyone if this becomes a huge step in another up- and-comer's outstanding career. ❏ INSIDE MICHIGAN CHRIS BALAS Chris Balas has been with The Wolverine since 1997. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald spent the last seven years with the Baltimore Ravens, who finished among the NFL's top eight for yards allowed in six of his seasons there. PHOTO BY EJ HOLLAND A Helping Hand And Plenty Of Promise

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