The Wolverine

February 2022

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2022 THE WOLVERINE 65 M ichigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was not the recipient of the Broyles Award as college football's top assistant coach in 2021. That was U-M offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Yet the way Macdonald turned the Wolverines defense around in his first season in Ann Arbor arguably makes him just as deserving of the honor, and with all the attrition the unit has recently ex- perienced, he will have another imposing challenge in front of him next year. Macdonald needed to renovate Michi- gan's defense after he was hired. The unit cratered the previous year under Don Brown. With Brown's press-man, blitz- heavy approach, the Wolverines had been among the top 10 in yards allowed per play in each of his first four seasons. But Michigan's defense fell apart in 2020. The circumstances of the CO- VID-19 pandemic contributed. Michi- gan's top corner, Ambry Thomas, elected to sit out the shortened season to preserve his health for the 2021 NFL Draft. Several of the Wolverines' other star defenders, such as defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, and linebacker Cameron McGrone, suffered significant injuries. And the remaining Wolverine defenders did not look nearly as skilled or comfortable executing what Brown wanted. As a result, the Wolver- ines plummeted to 54th in yards allowed per play and surrendered a whopping 34.5 points per game (95th nationally). Something needed to change, and Macdonald brought it. He utilized his Baltimore Ravens background to install a new defensive scheme that presented more disguised looks. Opponents no longer knew that Michigan was going to be in press man. Macdonald was going to call more mixed coverages to confuse the quarterback and make him hold the ball a beat or two longer. It also did not hurt that Hutchinson returned, and Macdonald used those extra moments to allow Hutchinson and outside linebacker David Ojabo to do what they do best. Not trusting his defensive tackles as much, Brown had asked Paye and Hutchinson to provide more support against the run. Although both were great against the ground game, the extra atten- tion and focus that they had to direct to- ward the run reduced their opportunities to unleash themselves on the edge against the passer. Macdonald, on the other hand, allowed Hutchinson and Ojabo to do that as much as they could. It resulted in the most productive pass-rushing campaign ever by a pair of Michigan defenders. Hutchinson set the school's single-season sack record with 14 en route to being the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and Ojabo accumulated 11 sacks, just one shy of the previous program record. With Macdonald's new scheme, the relentlessness of Hutchinson and Ojabo on the edge, the improvement of de- fensive tackles Christopher Hinton and Mazi Smith in the middle, the leadership of linebacker Josh Ross, the stability of safeties Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins, and the second-half surge of corner DJ Turner, Michigan's defense rebounded with a vengeance in 2021. The Wolver- ines shot back up to 14th in yards allowed per play. More astonishingly, they allowed about half the number of points per game (17.4) compared to the prior season, and their defensive scoring average was good for eighth in the country. Only four of 14 opponents scored more than 20 points in 2021 after all six did in 2020, and Michi- gan held archrival Ohio State, the nation's best offense, to its lowest yards per play (5.80) and second-lowest point total (27). The 34-year-old Macdonald has re- ceived and deserved much praise for his work in his first season as a defen- sive coordinator. Yes, there were some learning moments, such as getting caught with slow defensive line rota- tions against tempo, but 2021 was an unqualified success. But Macdonald has a lot of work ahead of him to have another unquali- fied success in 2022. The next Michigan defense will look much different than the one this past season. Hutchinson will be one of the first picks, if not the first pick, in the NFL Draft, and there are many others who want to take their shot at the professional level. Ojabo, Hill, Ross, Hinton and starting corner Vincent Gray have all declared for the NFL Draft. Plus, Hawkins has exhausted all of his eligibility. That is seven of 11 defensive starters gone, including three in the secondary and three up front. The biggest question will be on the de- fensive line. The defensive pressure was primarily generated by Hutchinson and Ojabo, and none of their likely replace- ments — Taylor Upshaw, Jaylen Harrell or Michael Morris — have demonstrated that they can replicate that production. Plus, Hinton's departure was unex- pected, and the depth at defensive tackle after Smith is thin. Michigan's defense won games in the trenches, but it is un- clear how that will be in 2022. However, if Macdonald can have Michigan's defense in the same position or better than 2021 in this upcoming season, he should hear his name an- nounced as a Broyles finalist. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT All Eyes On Mike Macdonald's Encore Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. Macdonald helped bring about significant improvement to the U-M defense, but repeating that success in 2022 will be a challenge. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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