Michigan first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is working to install his defense in the early going of spring ball, and he’s just getting started. He’s not certain exactly what his group will look like when the Sept. 4 opener with Western Michigan rolls around, for a number of reasons.
One — while he likes what he’s seen from his personnel, he’s still trying to figure out who can do what. He’s not going to put square pegs in round holes just for the sake of putting guys in different positions.
“It will be very much tailored to who can do what, the guys we have on our roster,” Macdonald said. “It’s hard for me to tell you what we’re going to be because we have different players with different skillsets than places I’ve been in the past.
“The principles will be the same as far as how we play and build out a defense, but there will be no tweaking. It’s very much expected they’re going to learn what we’re putting in. We expect the guys to learn all the concepts. When we figure out who is good at those concepts, not whether or not you can do them, that’s when we start to tailor it.”
But that’s down the road, he noted. It’s very much a rebuild given what the Wolverines did under coordinator Don Brown the last several years, and the players will have to get used to new terminology and positions. Those once considered vipers — hybrid linebacker/safeties — will have a role, for example, but it will be different than what they’re used to.
How different isn’t yet known. Macdonald will use what he learned at different stops (Georgia, NFL’s Ravens), but those defenses were tailored to the opposition, he noted, and he’s still in the early stages of figuring out what he needs to do.
There are a few certainties, however.
“We’re going to be multiple. The best way I can describe our scheme is it’s going to look a lot like the places I’ve been previously,” he said. “Watch our Baltimore defense and tell me the times we look like a 3-4. There’s going to be a certain percentage there, but there are a lof times it will look like a 4-3, sometimes a 6-1, sometimes a 6-2; sometimes you’re not going to know what the heck it looks like.
“… The thing about our defense that I think makes us unique is a series of concepts we teach. There are things we’ll teach our guys that there’s no call even involved with this concept. We’re teaching this concept today, this tomorrow, then we marry them together. There’s going to be more of that, layer them over time and that gives you the flexibility to build certain fronts with certain coverages, pressures that allows you to one, let your guys do well what you do and two, stop the offenses you’re seeing.”
But the cupboard isn’t bare, he added. He’s inherited good players, and he’s been pleased with the attitude and energy. Guys are absorbing what they’re teaching, and if they make mistakes, they’re not making them twice.
Redshirt junior Aidan Hutchinson isn’t practicing, but Macdonald said he’s seen enough of him (and heard enough from him) to know he’s exactly the kind of player he wants to build around. He also had high praise for fifth-year seniors Josh Ross and Brad Hawkins, noting Hawkins in particular should be able to play a number of positions in his defense.
“We have really good players here that will allow us to do multiple things, allow us to be multiple,” he said. “Aidan hasn’t been practicing, but I feel him out there. Josh Ross hasn’t necessarily been out there every day, but he’s a guy that’s really attacked everything. Brad Hawkins … really has the ear of the rest of the defense.”
They’ll continue to install over the next several weeks, and Macdonald has no doubt he’ll get it all in before fall.
“We’re going at a pace where guys can get good at each thing before we move on to the next thing,” he said.” The beauty of spring practice and having it early is we don’t have to take the field in two weeks to play defense against all the teams we’re about to face. We have some time on our hands to take it at a correct pace so we’re not going too fast.
“We’re 10, 11 guys sitting in a room, dreaming up what want it to look like and how we want to operate. We’re literally working from the ground floor from what do we call this formation, what do we call this receiver to what we’ll call on third and 11 in a critical situation. It’s a blank canvas.”
One he’s working furiously to fill in over the next several months.