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In Michigan’s Revival, Coordinators Deserve A Ton Of Credit

As Michigan prepares for the Big Ten Championship, there's been a lot of focus around Harbaugh finally getting over the hump and Hutchinson and Haskins emerging as Heisman candidates. But the unsung heroes for Michigan's shocking run to the conference title game have been a less heralded group; the assistant coaches.

With the college football coaching carousel spinning out of control the past few days, it's hard not to think of where Michigan was a year ago, debating whether to fire Jim Harbaugh. After an abysmal 2-4 season, it seemed Harbaugh’s time at the helm in Ann Arbor could be coming to an end.

But instead, the athletic department took a different approach.

They reduced Harbaugh’s salary and buyout and completely overhauled his staff while getting younger in the process. The average age of the new assistants was just over 35 years old, and it’s built a better dynamic with the players. The most notable change was firing defensive coordinator Don Brown and hiring Mike Macdonald from the Baltimore Ravens staff as his replacement. With Michigan now playing for a Big Ten Championship and achieving the most successful season of the Harbaugh era so far, it’s clear that those changes have paid major dividends.

With Macdonald’s NFL style scheme, he’s completely revamped Michigan’s defense. They are 8th in points allowed at just 17.2 per game. They have two NFL first-round talents in the front seven with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The secondary, which was torched last year for 255.5 pass yards per game, has completely flipped the script to allow just 196.3 through the air and most recently slowed down Ohio State’s juggernaut offense.

“He’s done a ton,” junior defensive lineman Mazi Smith said of Macdonald. “I don’t know that we’d be where we are without him — I know we wouldn’t. I give him credit in the way that he gave us the ability to take the reins of the defense.”

Where Brown’s defense was stagnant and ran constant man-to-man with little adaptation, Macdonald has been willing to make in-game adjustments and have players taking on a variety of roles. The team has fully bought into his system.

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“[We’re just using] new techniques, using the personnel we’ve got to the best of our abilities to maximize everybody in the front,” Smith said. “You all see we’ve got a lot of packages. We’ve got third-down packages, we’ve got first and second down packages, we’ve got everything. And every d-lineman has played, so it’s using your personnel and making the best out of what you’ve got, and I think coach Mac has done a spectacular job doing that.”

While the defense has found new life, the offense has been equally rejuvenated. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was not a new hire, but he has reinvented his offensive scheme to maximize the current Wolverines’ roster. Leaning into a run-heavy approach led by Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum has done wonders for the Michigan offense and as a result they’ve averaged 224.9 yards per game on the ground.

Gattis has also put together clean game plans for Cade McNamara, allowing the run-first scheme to create play action-opportunities in the passing game. While he hasn’t lit it up the scoreboard with his arm, he’s been a very effective passer with only three interceptions in 284 attempts — tied for second fewest in the country.

Gattis’ efforts were recognized earlier this week when he was named as a Broyles Award finalist, which goes to college football’s top assistant.

“That relationship’s been so great with us and him this year and just the comfortability with him,” senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker said of Gattis. “We have fun every day in practice, too. We’ll have our times to laugh and joke and then we get down to business. He’s done a great job with us, just keeping our heads in it every week. It’s been a pleasure to play under him.”

The administration took a risk when they chose to keep Harbaugh and retool around him rather than blow the whole thing up.

At the time, it was a controversial decision that was met with a lot of criticism. Now, while other blue blood programs are starting from scratch with new head coaches, Michigan is finding itself in a perfect position to keep climbing.