What Mike Macdonald's Defense Might Look Like

Michigan's new defensive coordinator will be designing and implementing a defense for the first time and everyone is curious how it will look.
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Mike Macdonald has been with the Baltimore Ravens since 2014 and has learned under some very solid defensive coordinators. Macdonald has learned how to coach defense under both Dean Pees and Don "Wink" Martindale, who are both aggressive defensive minds. It stands to reason that Macdonald will do something similar to what's been done in Baltimore over the last handful of years.

If that is indeed how it plays out, expect Michigan to play a 3-4, blitz a lot and utilize a solid mix of man and zone schemes. The Ravens have been in the top three in blitz percentage over the last three seasons under Martindale, so again, it would make a lot of sense for Macdonald to do what he knows now that he's in Ann Arbor.

I'm most interested in how the linebacking corps will look for a few reasons. One, it's Macdonald's wheelhouse since he coached the linebackers for the Ravens over the last three seasons. Two, it's going to be quite a bit different than it was under Don Brown with his viper position being so key. And three, there isn't a lot of experience in that room with Cameron McGrone off to the NFL. 

After talking to Todd Karpovich of Raven Country, I've learned that the Ravens use a pretty standard linebacker alignment with common names — MIKE, WILL, SAM and RUSH. I'm going to break down what each of those positions do, who plays them for the Ravens and who I think could play them for the Wolverines.

MIKE

Description: In the Ravens defense, the MIKE linebacker is one of two inside positions and focuses on stopping the run, which obviously means he needs to be able to read and react quickly to the play, get through the wash and make sure tackles. He'll also work some in pass coverage.

Ravens player: For the Ravens, that player is Patrick Queen. At 6-0, 232 pounds and with 4.50 speed, Queen does everything pretty well, which is exactly what the MIKE backer needs to do — identify, pursue, get off blocks, make tackles and cover.

Projected Michigan starter: To me, this is Josh Ross' spot to lose. He's got the size (6-2, 230 pounds), instincts, tackling ability and agility to perform the tasks of the MIKE linebacker. He's also the most experienced player in the group, which makes him quite important to the defense.

Depth candidates: redshirt freshman Nikhai Hill-Green, freshman Jayden Hood, redshirt freshman Cornell Wheeler

WILL

Description: This is the other inside linebacker and is labeled as the WILL because it lines up on the weak side of the offensive line or the side without a tight end. This is usually the fastest linebacker on the field and also the best in coverage.

Ravens player: Former Ohio State Buckeye Malik Harrison holds down the WILL spot. He's actually not as fast as Queen, but he covers a lot of ground at 6-3, 247 pounds.

Projected Michigan starter: Based on the way the Ravens use their linebackers, this is the closest position to Don Brown's viper, which gives the edge to Michael Barrett. Like Ross, he also has some experience, which makes him valuable in a new system. Barrett has great speed, natural ball skills and a versatile skill set. 

Depth candidates: freshman Junior Colson, redshirt freshman William Mohan, junior Anthony Solomon

SAM

Description: The SAM backer has to aid heavily in run support while also being proficient as a blitzer. As is the case with the other two linebacker positions, pass coverage is a necessary skill as well. 

Ravens player: Matthew Judon holds down the SAM position for the Ravens at 6-3, 261 pounds. He runs a 4.73 and obviously has a lot of size. 

Projected Michigan starter: At 6-1, 233 pounds, Kalel Mullings has the skill set to be a very solid SAM linebacker. He's a former high school running back, which means he understands the run game, and he's got good speed and a high IQ, which should allow him to succeed as a blitzer.

Depth candidates: freshman Tyler McLaurin

RUSH

Description: The RUSH position for the Ravens is the freakiest player because of the size, length and speed combination. Those traits make him the best at getting after the quarterback. This is the kind of player that looks like a cross between a linebacker and a defensive end. Think Josh Uche.

Ravens player: At 6-3, 265 pounds, Pernell McPhee starts at RUSH for the Ravens. He's not as speedy as you'd probably prefer at that position, but he's got good size and can really pressure the quarterback off the edge.

Projected Michigan starter: This position has David Ojabo written all over it. He hasn't really been able to put it all together, but if you put him out there and tell him to just chase the quarterback, he should be able to make some plays. At 6-5, 250 pounds and with track speed, Ojabo could really become a problem for quarterbacks in this scheme.

Depth candidates: freshman Kechaun Bennett, redshirt freshman Jaylen Harrell, redshirt freshman Braiden McGregor


There are a lot of question marks surrounding the defense because we simply don't know exactly what Macdonald is going to do. There are several other new defensive assistants as well, and a lot of new faces potentially on the field too. If I was running the defense, and Michigan was playing tomorrow, this is how my base unit would look:

michigan football projected starting defense

Obviously the biggest change is Daxton Hill to cornerback. He's been described as Michigan's best cover man and the Wolverines needed help at corner in 2020 in a bad way. Throw in the fact that rising sophomore Makari Paige got some good run last year and I think this lineup puts the best 11 on the field. However it shakes out, it's going to be really interesting with a new scheme and new faces contributing.