Meet the Michigan defensive coordinator with Georgia roots who changed the Wolverines

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Mike Macdonald’s relationship with Xarvia Smith didn’t get off to a great start.

Shortly after Smith was hired as the head coach at Centennial High School in Roswell, Georgia, Macdonald, a senior team captain, called him 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. Once you graduate, we’ll have all the lunches you want,'” Smith recalled. “That’s kind of how we started our relationship.”

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

It was the beginning of Macdonald’s meteoric rise through the coaching profession, which will now see him on the big stage with him coordinating No. 2 Michigan‘s defense against No. 3 Georgia in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App). As a first-time defensive coordinator, Macdonald, 34, guided a unit that ranked fourth in the FBS in scoring defense (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. “This is how it was supposed to be. Once he finished college, I said, ‘This is what’s going to happen: You’re going to be a coordinator and then a head coach.'”

Smith recalled Macdonald laughing about his prediction. “You watch,” Smith told him.

In his first season as coach of the Cedar Shoals High freshman team, Macdonald’s defense posted six shutouts during a 7-0 campaign in 2008. Two years later, then-Georgia defensive coordinator 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 major and was going to be a CPA. I used to kid him all the time and say, ‘Dude, you need to do that.’ But he wanted to coach football and was my GA for two years and did an awesome job. He was very detailed and one of those guys where you could tell him something and he didn’t have to come to me if he got into a situation where he had to figure something out. He’d figure it out and get things done.”

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

“He was a sharp guy, for sure,” former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. “He was the smartest guy in the room. There are a lot of smart guys that can’t communicate very well. They expect everybody to understand things as quickly as they do. One of the gifts of teaching is making something that’s a little bit complicated simple and making it more understandable. I always felt like he was really good at that. You can go into a room and get everybody’s heads spinning, or you can be a guy where people say, ‘That guy taught me something.'”

Macdonald finished a master’s degree in sports management at Georgia in 2013 and was ready to get out of coaching. He even signed a contract to accept a job with a global accounting firm. But with the help of Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner, Macdonald instead took an internship with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014.

“Just extremely fortunate,” Macdonald said. “Talk about just luck of the draw. Man, am I blessed that that happened, [or] otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was impressed enough to hire Macdonald as a defensive assistant the next year. He coached the Ravens’ defensive backs in 2017 and linebackers from 2018 to 2020. What surprised Smith more than anything was Macdonald’s ability to coach NFL players at such a young age — and without much playing experience himself. Macdonald missed his senior season of high school with neck and knee injuries and didn’t play in college.

“I had the same fear as a young coach, ‘Why would anyone listen to me?'” Richt said. “But what you learn is that if you have knowledge, can teach and can help a guy get better, then they respect that. They’re looking for that and hoping for that. They want respect as a person, too. They don’t want some guy that’s going to dog them out. They want a guy that can communicate and help a guy be better in what he wants to be great at. That’s why guys like that gain respect quickly.”

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

Former Georgia coach Mark Richt

Macdonald’s move to Michigan required a leap of faith from Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, John’s younger brother, and himself. The Wolverines were coming off a 2-4 campaign during the abbreviated 2020 season. Harbaugh was on the hot seat after his teams failed to beat rival Ohio State in five tries and hadn’t won the Big Ten in six seasons, and he had taken a salary reduction in an incentive-laden contract extension. 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 the head coach at Massachusetts. In Brown’s final season, the defense ranked 87th in yards allowed per game, 59th in yards allowed per play and was in the bottom tier in rushing and passing yards allowed per game as well.

“I didn’t really think about … the hot seat,” Macdonald said. “Quite frankly, I didn’t really know about it. I knew coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan and the reputation that this university has. I mean, it was honestly pretty simple. And then just my personal goals, I always wanted to be a defensive coordinator at any level, and this is big-time football. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

This past spring, Macdonald promised that the Wolverines would use multiple looks to try to confuse offenses, much like the Ravens do. The Wolverines have played zone coverage, man-to-man and pattern matched in the secondary.

Sometimes, Michigan’s defense lines up in a 3-4 scheme, 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 devise schemes that utilize his players’ skills. 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 turned things around at his alma mater. The Wolverines finished 12-1, blasted the Buckeyes 42-27 and won their first Big Ten title in 17 years.

“I think he brings a new version of the game for us to play,” defensive tackle Mazi Smith said. “I think the way he implements all the things that he’s trying to teach us and get us to do, he does it quickly, he does it efficiently. He don’t leave no meat on the bone. I just think [he uses] his personnel to the best of our ability, he’s got packages for everybody, and he’s trying to get the most out of us, and we want to do it.”

Seldom-used players of the past, such as linebacker David Ojabo, cornerback DJ Turner and Smith, became bona fide stars in Macdonald’s scheme this season.

“Man, he just gave me a chance,” said Turner, who didn’t have a tackle in each of his first two seasons before intercepting two passes and defending nine others this year.

Ojabo, a junior from Scotland, had one tackle in 2020 before exploding for 11 sacks with five forced fumbles this season.

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

Now the Wolverines are having the time of their lives and are just one victory away from playing in the CFP National Championship.

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

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



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