Michigan football mailbag: Macdonald's departure, Harbaugh's future have readers writing

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan fans have been keeping a close eye on coach Jim Harbaugh and a possible NFL flirtation since the start of the year, because it’s been different.

When his name was previously linked to NFL jobs, Harbaugh, who just finished his seventh season, would jokingly refer to “jive turkeys” and dismiss any interest in bolting for the league. But Harbaugh, who hasn’t been available to media since after the Orange Bowl game on New Year’s Eve, hasn’t publicly shot down the speculation.

Will Jim Harbaugh stay at Michigan or return to NFL?

Along the way, Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald decided after one season to take over as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. So here we are, closing in on February, and it seemed time for a mailbag. Here we go:

►Question: How much of a surprise was the Mike Macdonald move and who could replace him? Also: how much Skyline Chili will you have on hand for Sunday’s game? —  @ajortiz3

►Answer: The only thing that surprised me about Macdonald leaving Michigan after one year to return to the Ravens, this time as defensive coordinator, is this happened a year earlier than I thought. Macdonald had signed a three-year deal at Michigan, and I thought he would be here at least two years. But when that Ravens job opened, dots were connected for Macdonald returning to working with head coach John Harbaugh. Also, the college job is a grind with recruiting, and that creates such a different life than an NFL coaching job.

For subscribers: Trieu: Saline QB, Michigan target C.J. Carr keeps level head amid growing success

As far as replacements, former Michigan linebacker Larry Foote, linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Bucs, is on Jim Harbaugh’s list. People here are familiar with Foote, and I can’t help but think back to 2000 after Michigan fell 32-31 at Purdue when Foote was so emotional and took the blame for the Wolverines’ loss. Of course it wasn’t his fault, but that’s the type of leader he was a player. Foote has been in the NFL for a long time, starting with his 13 seasons as a player, and he may have some opportunities to jump to an NFL coordinator position, most notably if Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich gets a head coaching gig. Would Foote be a great fit at Michigan? Absolutely.

Since we are not privy to Harbaugh’s list of candidates, let me throw out a name — Jesse Minter. He was a first-year defensive coordinator last year at Vanderbilt after four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens (there’s that John Harbaugh connection again) and his name was floated last year as someone Macdonald might bring to Michigan. Coincidentally, Minter, 38, was a graduate assistant (2007-2008) under Brian Kelly at Cincinnati where new Michigan defensive line coach Mike Elston also was on staff. But considering Minter was on staff with Macdonald at Baltimore, there would be some continuity in terms of defensive scheme  if he were to take over at Michigan. Also, Minter was a guy who was itching to get back to the college game, so it suits him. Anyway, food for thought, and I don’t see this hiring made until the NFL jobs are settled.

But speaking of food, and your second question, Tony, I have a couple slabs of Montgomery Inn ribs and Graeter’s ice cream as a Bengals pregame on Sunday.

►Q: Discuss the pros and cons of hiring a new DC in-house versus a big name outside the current staff. — @Thruline1970

►A: By in-house presumably you mean Elston, who recently joined Michigan’s staff as defensive line coach after 12 years at Notre Dame, and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale. According to Clinkscale’s contract, as long as the wording meant “regular season” and not “overall,” he qualified for a bump to co-defensive coordinator this year because the team finished in the top 25 in fewest passing yards allowed during the regular season (Michigan was No. 27 after the national semifinal). I’m not sure there are any cons to elevating either of these two coaches to defensive coordinator, but Harbaugh has a pretty good track record for looking outside and making his hires.

►Q: Lots of losses especially on defense. Will that hurt for the search for a new coordinator? — @hawk48025

►A: There is considerable experience gone, that’s for sure. But Macdonald did rotate in a lot of the younger players, so while I don’t see an Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo or Dax Hill just yet, he did do a good job of developing. With that in mind, I don’t think that would deter anyone from taking the job.

►Q: With Macdonald leaving and the focus on bringing young coaches into the program in 2021, do you think Harbaugh will again look for a younger coach to fill the role? — @MarcCarmanSr

►A: That was definitely the trend last year, Marc, and it was one thing the players brought up repeatedly beginning in spring practice, because they felt they could relate better. The injection of youth on the coaching staff permeated the team and gave Harbaugh a boost. My hunch is he will go that route again.

►Q: Whose court is the ball in at this point? And what color is the elephant in the room? — @TheBlockhams

►Q: What is the most likely reason Jim Harbaugh’s “situation” seems to be taking so long to be resolved? — @M_O_Davis

►A: The simplest response is this— Harbaugh has been interested in potential NFL opportunities, so until those have been eliminated, there hasn’t been any rush for him to sign a revised contract with Michigan. There were some hurt feelings on his part a year ago when he signed an extension that cut his salary in half. He’s always up for competition and maybe the addition of the incentives generated that competitive fire in him, but slashing his pay from $8 million base to $4 million — despite the comment last month that he’d coach for free — had to be a bit a gut punch. My understanding is this latest, unsigned deal is not going to put Harbaugh in the financial neighborhood of those big deals like Mel Tucker and James Franklin received. So, to me, the ball seems to be in athletic director Warde Manuel’s court. And color of the elephant? That's your department, since you're the artist, Blockhams.

►Q: What is JH telling these kids that he’s recruiting currently? That he may or may not be at Michigan next year but commit to UM anyways??? That’s gotta be a tough sell! — @MIScott68

►A: Sure it is and don’t think the recruits haven’t been asking. I spoke to one of the assistants a few weeks ago and asked if recruits were asking him about Harbaugh’s status. He said, surprisingly, no, because he finds they tend to get more attached to the assistants recruiting them. That said, Harbaugh is not one to play games with recruits and has been straight with them when asked.

►Q: What does the scholarship count look like between all the guys declaring for the NFL and transfer portal? How young or old of a team will this be next year? — @TonyBooYay

►A: From my count, Tony, they’re a handful short of making the scholarship cut. It will be interesting to see what maneuvering there will be and what portal entries are ahead. A lot of experience left the team, so the way I see it, this is a young team. Also, last year I kept thinking that someone like Blake Corum didn’t really finish his freshman year until midway through last season. After all, Michigan only played six games in 2020, and someone like him missed out on six regular season games and the experience that goes with that. My point being, although Corum is going into his third season, in some ways it feels more like his late sophomore year.

►Q: Who are some players that stood out on the scout teams and during bowl practice that we can expect to see a jump to the next level this coming season? — @VauntedJT

►A: Vaunted, it’s a great question, but with Orange Bowl practices closed and news conferences virtual, there wasn’t a lot communicated on that front. That said, you probably know the guys expected to make significant jumps next year like Mike Morris, Junior Colson, Rod Moore, Andrel Anthony.

►Q: How do you see the QB situation playing out next season with Cade/JJ? — @JimMWeber

►A: Isn’t that competition going to be fun to follow? Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy are incredibly confident in their abilities and while McNamara has a bigger playing resume, McCarthy feels pretty good about his game and the opportunities he had last season. McNamara did a really nice job leading the team last year, but McCarthy’s upside is quite evident. Regardless who wins the starting job, the backup does have to embrace the “one play away” from playing mantra. Quarterback coach Matt Weiss last year was quick to say McNamara was the starter coming out of spring practice. Will they make any declarations this spring? We shall see.

►Q: What specifics do you know about the NIL UM program and can fans donate to the cause? Football should sell MI made craft beers at home games to bridge gap in budget. What is their stance? — @mid_nite_72

►A: Mid_nite, you asked a bunch of questions (thank you). Look, I think the way you donate to the NIL cause right now is buying products like the player jerseys sold at the M Den, since they get a good portion of the money. As far as beer, that’s a cool idea, and although he hasn’t been asked about it recently, Manuel has said no to alcohol sales at the stadium.

►Q: Michigan football played its most recent game in Florida. That’s where @umichsoftball opens its season in two weeks. Five wins or zero losses in the opening weekend? — @griffinhickman

►A: The only game that will be an issue for the 13th-ranked Wolverines will be Florida, ranked No. 5, so I suspect Michigan will return home, 4-1.

►Q: Which Cincinnati shirts did you get from Homefield last week? :) — @hooverstreet

►A: Didn’t get any new shirts, but I was gifted an awesome new Bengals hat and socks, and I’ve got every Bengals item from my youth on display. That’s going to be a tough game, but you know what they say in Cincinnati — Who Dey!


Twitter: @achengelis