How The Mike Macdonald Defense Can Work
Michigan's new defensive coordinator is installing an entirely new defense. There's reason to believe he can engineer a turnaround—several reasons, in fact.
Previously: Five Wild Cards (Offense), Five Wild Cards (Defense), Defense Preview Podcast (Apple link)
Mike Macdonald faces a hell of a challenge.
In his first year as the sole coordinator of a defense, he takes over a Michigan unit that fell behind the times against elite offenses under Don Brown before a total collapse in 2020. He’s not only inheriting a mess, he’s overhauling the scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base front. The depth looks paper-thin at multiple positions.
And yet! It’d be extremely difficult for Michigan not to improve from last year and the talent is in place to do a lot more than clear that very low bar. We know the worrisome spots (hello, cornerback). Let’s dig into how Macdonald and the new defensive coaches can turn this unit around.
A base 3-4 defense places more emphasis on the interior of the defensive line. The “defensive ends” are tackle-sized and the typical nose tackle weighs well north of 300 pounds. Depending on the coordinator’s approach, one or both of the outside linebackers could be the size of a 4-3 defensive end.
One of the more prominent complaints about Brown as his tenure progressed was that he undervalued size on the defensive line, preferring to bulk up his tackles from players the recruiting sites would list as strongside ends. The naturally large tackles on the roster had a tough time seeing the field. Ohio State and Wisconsin would blow the line off the ball.
Lack of size up front is no longer going to be a complaint. MGoBlog’s Seth Fisher used the spring roster to compare the weight of M’s projected front five (the three DL and two OLBs) to those of Macdonald’s previous charges, including the Baltimore Ravens, which you may note is an NFL team. This is how that comparison came out in HTTV 2021, which I once again urge you to purchase:
Michigan updated those listed weights for the fall; everyone has bulked up except now-OLB Aidan Hutchinson, who dropped all of four pounds. If the group Seth listed is the one that starts, the Wolverines will average 298 pounds along the front five. Even if you replace Donovan Jeter with Julius Welschof and Taylor Upshaw with David Ojabo, that average is still a hefty 288 pounds.
Inspired by Seth’s chart, I decided to look at how Michigan stacked up with two defenses that run successful true 3-4 fronts in college football. The first is Wisconsin, a program I’ve always associated with being huge on the lines, especially when they had Olive Sagapolu at nose tackle.
Michigan’s projected starters outweigh even the heaviest Sagapolu-anchored fronts by over 15 pounds per player, and the Welschof/Ojabo group would be the largest UW front by a significant margin. I did not anticipate this:
I’d planned to stop with Wisconsin but the enormous gap made my mind wander to the 3-4 powerhouse: Alabama. The Crimson Tide have indeed fielded larger groups than the Badgers. They’re still smaller than even Michigan’s lighter projection:
This is not to say that Michigan will be better up front than these Alabama teams, of course. Bama throws future NFL player after future NFL player out there, which allows them to play “undersized” nose tackles like Quinnen Williams, who was strong enough to hold the point of attack at 295 pounds while terrorizing interior lineman with his burst off the snap.
It’s going to be difficult to push the Wolverines off the ball, though. The interior should also be able to constrict the pocket to make quarterbacks uncomfortable—and prone to bailing out in the direction of Hutchinson and the other pass-rushers. The upside with this group is being overlooked.
The 3-4 scheme allows for a lot of flexibility. The defense can adapt to opponent and situation by making a number of adjustments to the alignment and personnel. Macdonald will often remove the nose tackle for an extra defensive back against spread-to-pass teams; he can also take out an inside linebacker for a similar effect.
Michigan also has several players who are capable of lining up in multiple positions, which should cover for a lot of the perceived depth issues on the defensive line. Nose tackle won’t just come down to Mazi Smith and Jordan Whittley; Donovan Jeter and Chris Hinton are both big enough to handle snaps at NT. Hutchinson has spent his career with his hand in the dirt and has unusual strength for a player his size; he can moonlight at DE.
There’s also some flexibility on the back end, especially since Macdonald will mix up coverage schemes more than Brown. The fifth defensive back, given this team’s personnel, is likely to be a safety instead of a corner, and that may very well extend to the sixth defensive back.
Defensive coaches always talk up how they’ll be “multiple” with their looks. Macdonald is actually poised to back it up.
A Competent Second Cornerback
This is obvious, doesn’t need to be discussed, and required for…
…Dax Hill Doing a Bit of Everything
Dax Hill is good enough in coverage to possibly be the answer to Michigan’s second cornerback problem. The issue with putting him on the edge of the defense, however, is that takes away from everything else he can do to impact the game.
It’s clear that the coaches want him lining up all over the place. Here’s an illustrative Ron Bellamy quote from The Michigan Insider:
“He's a kid that'll stay after practice to get his work in. With a new defense (and) what we asked him to do in the spring, he impressed me just being able to move around the football field and play at a high level. Whether it's at nickel, safety, or being able to line up and cover receivers playing [corner]... whatever he was asked to do, the kid did it at a high level. He’s one of the better special teams players that we have on the team. That speaks volumes. We're looking for big things from Dax this year.”
There are enough quotes about Hill lining up at cornerback to be worrisome, and Hill’s own attempts to reassure the masses about that situation haven’t totally accomplished the goal:
“It’s not like I’m a play here, play there,” Hill said. “We have a lot of good corners right now, so whenever they need me in certain situations or packages — that’s when I’m really going in.”
I’m rather skeptical Michigan has “a lot” of “good” corners right now, especially given Hill is still spending time working not just in the slot but as a true outside corner. I hope I’m wrong!
If a second corner emerges, I’m confident Bellamy (a safeties coach, present and accounted for!) and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale can find another solid option behind Hill and Brad Hawkins at safety. Between RJ Moten, Makari Paige, Jordan Morant, Quinten Johnson, and Jalen Perry, they have a lot of bodies to throw at one or two rotational spots.
That’d allow Macdonald to let Hill loose on opposing offenses. If Hill has the flexibility to line up all over the formation, the ceiling of this defense is much higher than if he’s lined up to one side that quarterbacks can avoid, even if that ability also holds great value. One scenario gives Hill a good shot at All-American status; in the other it’d be impressive if he finished as an All Big-Ten player at his second position.
Since the 3-4 only has three (and sometimes just two) linemen with their hand in the dirt, there’s almost always at least one blitzer from the back eight on a given play. Yes, the offense knows there’s going to be extra pressure. Figuring out where it’s going to come from, however, isn’t so easy.
This section assumes a certain level of coverage ability, of course. It doesn’t matter how many players are sent at the quarterback if a receiver pops open right away.
What the added unpredictability and pressure accomplishes, however, is forcing the offense into mistakes even if the defense isn’t totally sound. Nick Saban, the most defense-first coach of defense-first coaches, is on the record saying football teams can’t win just with great defense anymore—the game is too geared towards high-powered offense.
In that environment, giving up the occasional long touchdown isn’t the worst outcome so long as the defense is also ending some drives with sacks or turnovers. It’d be hard for Michigan not to improve in both of those departments this season and the scheme will help.
Here’s one possible starting lineup with each player’s overall star and recruiting ranking from the 247 Composite:
Defensive line: DT Chris Hinton (5*, #31 overall, 2019 class), NT Mazi Smith (4*, #105, 2019), DT Donovan Jeter (4*, #289, 2017)
Linebackers: OLB Aidan Hutchinson (4*, #112, 2018), ILB Josh Ross (4*, #211, 2017), ILB Michael Barrett (3* ATH, #761, 2018), OLB David Ojabo (4*, #314, 2019)
Secondary: CB Gemon Green (3*, #382, 2018), S Daxton Hill (5*, #14, 2019), S Brad Hawkins (3* WR, #425, 2017), CB DJ Turner (3*, #400, 2019)
Three of the four three-stars listed (Barrett, Green, and Hawkins) have at least one full season of starting experience and acquitted themselves relatively well. Yes, the other one is at corner, which isn’t ideal; perhaps there’s a late move in fall camp from a former four-star like Andre Seldon or Darion Green-Warren, and DJ Turner wasn’t too far off earning that fourth star anyway.
When you look at that group, talent is not the problem. Perhaps it’s not distributed ideally across position groups, especially when you dig down the depth chart, but it’s certainly not lacking.
About as obvious as the #2 cornerback point but one that needs to made nonetheless. Smith, Hutchinson, Ross, and especially Green or Hill would be extremely difficult to replace. Really, any injury to a starter is going to raise serious depth issues, and that also goes for rotational backups. Some teams get lucky, some teams don’t, and there’s nothing to do in this case but hope.
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You mentioned that blitzers may come from anywhere because of the way the 3-4 works. I admit to being uneducated on this D, but that's not what I understood the plan to be. Most teams rush 5 guys most of the time and in a 3-4 you know exactly who those are usually unless we are dropping beef into a short zone.
In fact, one of my concerns is teams being able to double up Hutchinson since they know where he will be coming from and none of the DTs pose a pass rush threat. Thoughts?
Another question I had for you was about tempo. I know the narrative now is that Don Brown is an idiot who didn't realize we needed beef....but I think he had a strategy of building a defense that didn't need to sub based on matchups. DTs and we're agile, DEs that could do everything, Vipers, fast/small LB, interchangeable safeties, etc. He didn't have the talent to execute and was probably a little too stubborn.
One fear I have is trapping all this beef on the field in a fast tempo situation and/or watching Mazi try to hurry off before a snap. How legit of a concern is this?