DANIA BEACH, Fla. — The reminiscing began shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday as Michigan football defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s life came full circle. He sat behind a microphone flagged with an Orange Bowl logo and answered questions about the school he attended, the football program that gave him his first real job and, most pressingly, the challenge his former employer now poses as an opponent in Friday’s national semifinal against Georgia.
“Back then we didn’t have iPads so we had the playbooks, and I remember just having a really rough relationship with the printer,” Macdonald said in a Zoom call. “But yeah, those were great days, man. Just learning from Coach (Mark) Richt and Coach (Todd) Grantham and Coach (Mike) Bobo and really just what makes an organization tick, how does it go, just being in on the ground floor, doing anything you can to help the team win was really valuable. They’re great people in that building, and it was great, great experience for us.”
Long before Macdonald jumped from the Baltimore Ravens to Ann Arbor and resurrected Michigan’s defense, he broke into coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 2010. Macdonald remained on Richt’s staff for the next four seasons as a defensive quality control coach before contemplating leaving the business in the spring of 2013, going so far as signing a contract with KPMG, one of the largest accounting firms in the world.
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It was then that Macdonald experienced a stroke of good fortune when Rodney Gardner, an assistant at Georgia from 1998-2012, mentioned the hardworking youngster to a member of the Ravens’ scouting department.
Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald watches warmups before a game against Northern Illinois at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
“That kind of worked up the food chain there and was just really fortunate that John Harbaugh was looking to start an intern program,” Macdonald said. “And I was able to kind of go through that process and really fortunate enough that actually Jay Harbaugh, our coach here, was one of the guys that kind of helped set the whole thing up. Just extremely fortunate. Talk about just luck of the draw. Man am I blessed that that happened, so otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Where the 34-year-old Macdonald now sits is on the cusp of the national championship if the Wolverines can upset the Bulldogs at Hard Rock Stadium. The first-time defensive coordinator emerged as a central figure in Michigan’s revival under steadfast head coach Jim Harbaugh, who trusted the recommendation from his brother and hired Macdonald away from the Ravens, where the former intern spent the last three seasons coaching linebackers after climbing the ranks.
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Now Macdonald, who had never called players prior to arriving at U-M, oversees a unit tied for fourth in the country in scoring defense, 20th in rushing defense, 22nd in passing defense, 11th in total defense and 13th in opponent third-down conversion rate.
It’s hard to believe he was splitting time as an undergraduate student and assistant coach at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia, as recently as 2008-09.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had coaching probably up to this year,” Macdonald said when asked about his time at Cedar Shoals. “I mean, that was a blast.”
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Jan 1, 2021; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver George Pickens (1) catches a pass against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first quarter of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Backup QB, No. 1 WR join Georgia in Miami
Backup quarterback JT Daniels and elite wide receiver George Pickens reportedly cleared COVID-19 protocols and joined the rest of their teammates in Florida ahead of Friday’s game. Both are expected to be available to play.
Daniels, a transfer from Southern California, entered the year as Georgia’s starting quarterback but suffered an injury that opened the door for Stetson Bennett, who held the No. 1 job ever since. Bennett completed 64.1% of his passes this season while throwing for 2,325 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
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Offensive coordinator Todd Monken defended coach Kirby Smart’s decision to keep Bennett atop the depth chart despite widespread frustration from fans clamoring for Daniels, whose record is perfect in games he’s played over two years at Georgia.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we can win the national championship, and there’s no doubt in my mind we can win it with Stetson Bennett,” Monken said. “There’s no question. We went into the (SEC) championship game with Stetson Bennett as our quarterback as a favorite over a team (Alabama) that hasn’t been an underdog in over five years. That ought to tell you about our quarterback and how he played.”
Having Pickens available is a significant boost for Monken’s offense. A former five-star recruit, Pickens was Georgia’s best wide receiver the last two seasons but suffered a torn ACL during spring practice earlier this year. He returned to play UGA’s final two games against Georgia Tech and Alabama and caught three passes for 46 yards.
Prior to the injury, Pickens was viewed by some as a potential first- or second-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, Pickens could present matchup problems for some of U-M’s smaller defensive backs. He had over 1,200 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 and 2020 combined.
“George has done a fantastic job of working to get back, to give himself a chance to play at the back end of this season,” Monken said. “When I think back to the spring when he injured his knee and thinking, wow, what a disappointment for him and his development and for us. But he has done a fantastic job of trying to get back. There are going to be some things that he’s continued to work through, trusting the knee, obviously reps.
“We’re still trying to work him in and to make sure that he can help us offensively and most importantly help us win with what he can do at this point. But he’s done a great job of getting back and helping this team.”
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson lifts the Big Ten championship trophy after the 42-3 win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Indianapolis.
Preparing for Hutchinson
If players and coaches outside the Big Ten were unfamiliar with edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson’s body of work this season, his presence in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist likely opened their eyes. Hutchinson, who finished second in the voting, is the highest-rated edge rusher in the country on Pro Football Focus, ranks third in sacks (14) and tied for third in quarterback pressures (73).
It’s safe to say the Bulldogs have noticed.
“Man, he’s huge,” Georgia running back Zamir White said. “He’s a fast guy and he’s a vet player. And just knowing what he’s like and just seeing him on film, it’s crazy, man. The guy is like really a dominant player. We have got to watch out for that guy, man. He’s tough.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football’s Mike Macdonald remembers Georgia days fondly