Michigan Week: Coaching
Last year was a breakthrough season for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan won 12 games, captured its first Big Ten championship in a generation and advanced to the College Football Playoffs for the first time in program history. And it did so with a mostly new coaching staff. With such a successful opening act by the new staff, you’d think Michigan would be set up for success for the foreseeable future. That may be the case, but it won’t be because of stability in the coaching ranks. That’s because one year after its breakthrough season, Michigan introduces new offensive and defensive coordinators – and almost introduced a new head coach.
In his third season as Michigan’s offensive coordinator, everything came together for Josh Gattis and the Michigan offense. Behind a powerful offensive line, Gattis directed one to the nation’s most productive and balanced offenses. For his efforts, Gattis won the Broyles Award – an honor given annually to college football’s top assistant coach.
But as important as Gattis was to Michigan’s resurgence, first year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was equally as important. With a defense that featured multiple fronts, coverages and schemes – along with a pair of All-American edge rushers – Michigan showed an ability to adapt and adjust better than past Wolverine teams had been able to do. Macdonald’s defense also put its playmakers in positions to make plays – something they did in volume. In his debut season as a defensive coordinator, Macdonald turned a unit that ranked 95th in the country in total defense in 2020 to a top ten unit in 2021.
With Gattis and Macdonald, both still in their 30s, Michigan seemed to have found its coordinators of the future. Well, it will have to have to find them again, as both moved on in what was an eventful offseason.
Macdonald’s time in Ann Arbor was never going to be long. An up-and-comer on John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens staff, Macdonald’s detour to Michigan was as much about him getting seasoning calling plays as it was about him solving Michigan’s defensive issues. Having accomplished both goals in his debut season at Michigan, and with the retirement of Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, it wasn’t surprising that Macdonald returned to the Ravens, where he becomes the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL.
But while Macdonald’s departure wasn’t completely unexpected, the same can’t be said of Gattis, who surprised many when he left Michigan to assume the same position on Mario Cristobal’s staff at Miami.
With the departures of Gattis and Macdonald, Michigan found itself in the unenviable position of replacing both of its coordinators. And it almost had to replace more than that. Coming off Michigan’s turnaround season, Harbaugh himself seemed on the brink of leaving Michigan, engaging in not-so-secret discussions with several NFL teams. Harbaugh ultimately returned to Ann Arbor – where his first order of business was replacing Gattis and Macdonald. Big shoes to fill, to be sure. So, who’s filling those shoes?
On defense, Harbaugh went back to the well and brought in another former Ravens coach. “It worked before,” Harbaugh said of looking to his brother’s coaching staff, “So I figured it would work this time.” And this time, Harbaugh looked to someone who was already been on his radar.
“When I was hiring Mike Macdonald a year ago,” Harbaugh said, “My brother John said, ‘Mike Macdonald or Jesse Minter. They’re both great. If I was you, I’d pick one.’ I looked at both, looked at Mike first, and that’s the direction I ended up going.” Harbaugh ultimately hired Macdonald, and Minter went to Vanderbilt, where he spent a season as the Vandals’ defensive coordinator, which gave him experience calling plays.
That experience is an advantage, but a bigger advantage is that Minter and Macdonald not only worked together in Baltimore, they also have similar defensive philosophies. Minter is expected to run a system similar to that which Macdonald ran, ensuring a level of continuity for the Wolverine defense. “It will be more like the second year in the same system, than starting in a new system for a second time in two years,” Harbaugh told reporters last month at the Big Ten Media Days.
On offense, Harbaugh opted to maintain a level of continuity as well, promoting Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore to co-coordinator roles. Weiss and Moore will retain their previous assignments as quarterback coach and offensive line coach, respectively, while combining to lead the offense.
Harbaugh has no doubt the offense will prosper under Weiss and Moore. In fact, he said Weiss is the perfect counterbalance to him. “Matt is as detailed a guy as you’ll ever meet,” Harbaugh said. “So prepared. Me? I’ve never met a play I didn’t like, very aggressive. We’ll play off each other well.” The thought being that Weiss’s analytic approach will help temper Harbaugh, while Harbaugh’s aggressiveness will push Weiss.
Harbaugh is equally bullish on his other co-offensive coordinator, particularly because of his work with the offensive line. “And Sherrone, coaching the offensive line,” Harbaugh added, “is such a critical component of our offensive planning.” Critical, as well, to maintaining Michigan’s identity as a power-running offense. So, new coordinators or not, don’t expect Michigan to look very different on offense.
While there’s a theme of maintaining continuity with both coordinator hires, that’s where the similarities between offense and defense end. Weiss and Moore will have a proven roster with which to work. So, expect big things – and lots of points – from Michigan’s offense. Which is a good thing, because on the other side of the ball, Minter doesn’t have the luxury of working with as many proven performers. That being the case, the challenge for Minter will not only be replicating the success that Macdonald had last year, but doing so with a largely unproven defensive roster.