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

7:30 AM

The relationship between Mike Macdonald and Xarvia Smith did not start well.

Macdonald invited Smith to lunch after he was hired as the head coach at the high school.

I laughed at him and said that I wouldn't have lunch with him. I'm your coach. Smith said that once you graduate, they'll have all the lunches you want. That's how we started our relationship.

Macdonald called his former coach at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, who had just been hired, two years after he had left to study finance at the University of Georgia. Smith hired Macdonald as head coach of the freshmen and a defensive analyst after he wanted a job.

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It was the beginning of Macdonald's rise through the coaching profession, which will now see him on the big stage with him coordinating Michigan's defense against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl. The app is available on the Disney and ESPN websites. Macdonald, a first-time defensive coach, guided a unit that ranked fourth in the FBS in scoring defense and 11th in total defense.

Smith said that they laid out the plan for him a decade ago. This is how it was supposed to be. He's going to be a head coach after college, I told him.

Smith recalled laughing at Macdonald's prediction. Smith told him to watch.

In his first season as a coach, Macdonald's defense posted six shutouts. Macdonald was hired as a graduate assistant by Todd Grantham after another GA recommended him.

He was smart immediately, and was conscientious. He was going to be a CPA and was a business major. I used to tell him that he needed to do that. He was my GA for two years and did a great job. If he got into a situation where he had to figure something out, he didn't have to come to me because he was very detailed. He would figure it out and get things done.

Michigan's defense is 11th in total defense and fourth in scoring defense this season, thanks to the guidance of Mike Macdonald.

Macdonald worked with safeties on Georgia's staff for four seasons, the last three as a defensive quality control coach.

Mark Richt was the former head coach of the University of Georgia. He was the smartest person in the room. A lot of smart guys can't communicate. Everyone is expected to understand things as quickly as possible. One of the great gifts of teaching is making something simple and understandable. He was good at that. You can go into a room and get people talking, or you can be a guy who teaches people something.

After finishing a masters degree in sports management at Georgia, Macdonald was ready to leave coaching. He signed a contract to work for a global accounting firm. Macdonald took an internship with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014, thanks to the help of the auburn defensive line coach.

Macdonald said that he was extremely fortunate. Talk about luck of the draw. I am blessed that that happened, otherwise we wouldn't be here.

Macdonald was hired by Harbaugh as a defensive assistant the next year. He was the Ravens' defensive backs and linebackers coach for three years. Smith was surprised by Macdonald's ability to coach players at such a young age without much playing experience. Macdonald didn't play in college because of injuries he sustained in high school.

I had the same fear as a young coach, "Why would anyone listen to me?" Richt said something. If you can teach and help a guy get better, they will respect that. They are looking for that and hoping for it. They want to be respected as a person. They don't want a guy that will dog them out. They want a guy that can communicate and help a guy be better at what he does. Guys like that gain respect quickly.

He was the smartest person in the room. A lot of smart guys can't communicate. One of the great gifts of teaching is making something simple and understandable. I always thought he was good at that. Mark Richt was the Georgia coach.

Jim Harbaugh, John's younger brother, and himself all had to take a leap of faith in Macdonald's move to Michigan. During the abbreviated 2020 season, the Wolverines had a 2-4 campaign. Harbaugh had taken a salary reduction in an incentive-laden contract extension after his teams failed to beat Ohio State in five tries and hadn't won the Big Ten in six seasons. Harbaugh restructured his staff and hired a new one, but it was a gamble.

Don Brown was Macdonald's defensive coordinator. In Brown's final season, the defense was in the bottom tier in yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, and rushing and passing yards allowed per game.

Macdonald didn't think about the hot seat. I didn't really know about it. I knew coach Harbaugh and the reputation of the university. It was very simple. This is a big-time football and I always wanted to be a defensive coach. It doesn't get bigger than this.

The Ravens use multiple looks to confuse offenses, much like the Wolverines promised this past spring. Zone coverage, man-to-man, and pattern matched in the secondary have been played by the UM.

Sometimes, Michigan's defense lines up in a 3-4 scheme, sometimes it's a 4-3, and other times it's a 6-1 or 6-2. Macdonald has tried to come up with schemes that use his players' skills. Ryan Day, the Ohio State coach, said in November that Michigan's defense was more "NFL-oriented" than it has been in the past.

Harbaugh finally turned things around at his alma mater. The Big Ten title was won by the Michigan team, who finished 12-1 and beat the Ohio State 42-27.

Mazi Smith thinks he brings a new version of the game to the table. I think he does it quickly and efficiently because he's trying to teach us and get us to do it. He doesn't leave meat on the bone. I think he uses his personnel to the best of his ability, and he's trying to get the most out of us, and we want to do it.

The players of the past, such as David Ojabo, DJ Turner and Smith, became stars in Macdonald's scheme this season.

Turner, who didn't have a tackle in each of his first two seasons before intercepting two passes and defending nine others this year, said he was given a chance by the coach.

Ojabo, a junior from Scotland, had one tackle in 2020 and exploded for 11 sacks with five forced turnovers this season.

Ojabo said that the game was fun again because of Macdonald.

The Michigan football team is just one victory away from playing in the national championship.

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

Smith told him that they need to have lunch.