Jim Harbaugh: Michigan's new defense still 'in the making' under revamped coaching staff

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t about to share details regarding how the defense will look this fall since parting with defensive coordinator Don Brown last December, but clearly there will be different approach with Mike Macdonald taking over as a first-time coordinator with three new assistant coaches on defense.

Macdonald spent the last seven seasons coaching for John Harbaugh at the Baltimore Ravens and was linebackers coach the last three. Maurice Linguist is co-defensive coordinator and will work with defensive backs; George Helow will coach linebackers; Ron Bellamy, initially hired as receivers coach, is now working with the safeties. Defensive line coach Shaun Nua is the only holdover from the previous staff.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has just one holdover on his defensive coaching staff.

The Wolverines opened their 15 days of spring practice on Monday and will hold their third practice Friday. There also are two new coaches on offense. Mike Hart is working with the running backs, and recent hire Matt Weiss will coach quarterbacks. Harbaugh intended to coach the position, but when linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary left for a job at Tennessee last Friday, Harbaugh hired Weiss and moved Bellamy to defense.

Harbaugh said Thursday during a video news conference, he looked at the strength of the Ravens defense and considered insights offered by his brother, John, when he hired Macdonald. Macdonald was heavily involved in restructuring the Ravens defense a few years ago.

“He really liked Mike (and said) he’d be somebody that would probably be their next defensive coordinator,” Harbaugh said, referring to his brother, John. “But he cares about Michigan football and me as his brother and that was one recommendation I knew I could count on. And he did not steer us wrong. I respect so many people in football. There’s so many coaches, and people that I trust and respect and get their advice and take very seriously when they recommend somebody, but no one more than my brother, John. He’s at the top of that list. so that was the way we went. Glad we did.”

Undoubtedly, Macdonald has a plan for Michigan’s defense and how it will be structured in terms of scheme, but Harbaugh wouldn’t share much.

“That’s hard to say right now, how different is it gonna look,” Harbaugh said. “Definitely different language and gonna be different front structures, different coverages, different blitz patterns. Hope it looks really good.”

How big a departure it will be from Brown’s defense, Harbaugh wouldn’t say. Last season was poor overall for the Wolverines, who went 2-4 before canceling the final three games because of COVID-19 issues. Michigan finished 89th nationally in total defense, allowing an average 434.3 yards and 95th in scoring, allowing an average 34.5 points.

“No sense talking about what exactly specifics of what it’s going to be,” Harbaugh said. “It’s in the making. Starting with the base fronts and base coverages and how quickly our guys can pick up. Mike’s definitely got the philosophy of mastering a front or coverage before we move to the next layer.

“So we’re still in the process of those first beginning layers, what we want our guys to know best. That principle of first learning. But it’s good. I see a lot of coaching, see a lot of communication. Definitely like what’s happened in the first few days of practice.”

Linguist, as co-coordinator, will focus on the secondary and coordinating the corners, safeties, and nickels with the front seven. He will work more heavily with the cornerbacks.

With Jean-Mary’s departure last Friday, Harbaugh had to adjust quickly to finalize his staff again, this time with just a couple of days before the start of spring practice. He hired Weiss, who he had worked with when Harbaugh was Stanford's head coach, from the Ravens to coach quarterbacks, then made the switches with Bellamy and Helow.

“I thought that was the best thing for our team,” Harbaugh said of hiring Weiss. “That was the way I could configure (the staff) and also hire coach Weiss. Swung for the fences there and that’s how I could make it work. Then had to also ask Ron Bellamy to go to the secondary, which was part of the original plan way back in December-January and then George Helow moved from safeties to linebackers.

“We’re now set. Feel really great about the staff, I really do. And also, told me a lot too, because I said, ‘Ron, would you be opposed to moving to safeties,’ and he said, ‘No, Coach, whatever’s best for the team.’ Talked to George Helow about going from safeties to linebackers, and he had the same response. I told him, that’s music to my ears and a tune you don’t always heard played that often in today’s world. Just made me know I’ve got the right guys on board, working hard, coaching hard. I feel, as you can tell, really good about where the staff is.”

Overhauling the staff had nothing to do, Harbaugh said, with a “disconnect’ between him and his previous staff.

“But wanted to be strong in all areas, making improvements to everything,” Harbaugh said. “I would describe as that.”

The 10 assistants are under 40 with an average age of 35. Harbaugh, entering his seventh season and last month signed a contract extension, said that was not intentional.

“Just looking for great coaches, really,” Harbaugh said. “That was the thing I was looking for the most. Happens that there’s definitely whatever you classify as young. I feel that they’re already accomplished coaches for their age and definitely coaches that are gonna do great things in this profession.”

Younger in coaching often translates to being more aggressive in recruiting.

“It’s been impressive,” Harbaugh said. “Our coaches have come in, and you can tell there’s a real love for it. you know. Getting into the trenches and forming those relationships. It’s very much so relationship-based, and it’s been really good. That’s the kind of guys they are, and I’d say that’s what the philosophy is and that’s what we’ve seen.”


Twitter: @chengelis