ANN ARBOR, Mich. – He’s not Mike Macdonald, but he sure walks, talks and acts like him.
Jesse Minter took the job as Michigan’s new defensive coordinator in February, shortly after Jim Harbaugh ended his bid for an NFL head-coaching job, and all signs point to the “seamless transition” that Harbaugh lauded in the announcement.
While the Wolverines lost seven starters on defense, the varied pro-style scheme that Macdonald built is still in place with no sign of going anywhere.
“One of my goals with the players was for those guys to feel like it was Year 2,” Minter said Wednesday during his introductory meeting with the media. “It’s probably one of the reasons I’m here.”
Minter, 38, used the word “continuity” to describe his plans this season, an attempt to help returning players feel comfortable in the system.
Still, Michigan’s defense was a bit more varied than the one some of them came in under, with a varied three and four-down front, talented edge rushers that were let loose and a secondary that mixed between zone and man coverages.
Expect more of the same in 2022, Minter says, but with his own wrinkles. The Wolverines finished eighth in the country in scoring defense (17.4 points per game) and 20th in total defense (330.9), re-establishing themselves as one of the nation’s best.
“There’s tweaks that you can make,” Minter, a former colleague of Macdonald’s in the NFL, who parlayed a stint with the Baltimore Ravens into the defensive coordinator role at Vanderbilt in 2021.
“But definitely Year 2 of the system.”
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Minter trumpeted the fact that every level of the Michigan defense has returning players with some type of experience. Defensive tackle Mazi Smith was an every-game starter last year, while ends Taylor Upshaw and Mike Morris saw snaps in most games.
But the reality of last year was that many of the players were key cogs in a defensive unit highlighted, and dominated, by Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, a pair of All-American edge rushers who often stole the spotlight.
With Hutchinson and Ojabo both gone to the NFL, Minter said, “it’s time for those guys to step into bigger roles.”
“It’s figuring out who the best players are,” Minter said. “I think our system is flexible enough to take advantage of the playmakers. Last year, the playmakers were the edge guys – that was pretty clear – and I think the defense was built around that.
“Hopefully we have edge guys come on, and I think we have enough options there, but I also think it’s about figuring out who the best players are.”
Michigan is past the halfway mark of its 15-practice spring schedule, a prime opportunity for Minter and his new co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale, who leads the defensive backs, to figure that out. And while things are still a work in progress (and will likely remain so heading into fall camp), “there’s a lot of carryover,” Clinkscale said.
“We kind of try to go through it with a fine-tooth comb every year,” he continued. “You try to watch what you did, try to make corrections, try to make it simpler for the players – and the coaches – to understand. We have a better understanding of going through it every year of how people tried to attack us, and we’re able to make adjustments. “
While the two aren’t going to say what, exactly, those adjustments are – Clinkscale described a need on the back end for more turnovers. The Wolverines finished the season tied for 93rd nationally in interceptions with 8, a figure that he’d like to see increase this fall.
Also clear on their mind is finding production in the pass-rushing department, a real strength of the defense last year. Minter made it clear that the ends and edge rushers may not be able to duplicate the numbers from Hutchinson and Ojabo (25 sacks, seven forced fumbles), but rather spread that activity out across the defensive line and returning linebackers.
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“To say that there’s a Hutch or an Ojabo in the room right now, time will tell,” said Minter, who then pointed to another piece to the coaching puzzle.
First-year defensive line coach Mike Elston comes to Michigan from Notre Dame, but his previous stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati forced him to find mid-level talent and coach them up.
“His track record of having high numbers of sacks with his D-line, yet he’s never had maybe a truly elite guy there,” Minter said. “He’s done a really good job of mixing in stunts and games and things like that to create rushes, and I think that’s something that we’re going to have to be good at.”
In other words, Minter is saying that the pass-rush will likely need to come from more spots on the field than the edge. That should open the door for more opportunities for defensive tackle Mazi Smith and linebacker Junior Colson, who Minter praised.
“We’ll always look to find a better way to do things,” Minter said. “What a good coach and good staff does is always try to take that next step. There will be some things that look different, but I think a lot of it will look the same. “
In fact, familiarity was a big reason for Harbaugh’s decision to transition from one ex-Ravens assistant (Macdonald) to another (Minter) leading his defense. Both guys came from the same system in Baltimore, led by Don “Wink” Martindale, and boast a similar profile. While Macdonald cut his teeth at the University of Georgia, Minter is a Little Rock, Ark., Native who cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator at FCS Indiana State, and later Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference.
They’re both considered high-IQ individuals who thrive in the Xs and Os of football. And when Harbaugh was looking for a replacement, finding a similar fit was important.
“(With) the coaches we still had on defense, the players, the structure and terminology would be close to – and, in a lot of cases – exactly the same,” Harbaugh said. “So, that was a big deal.”
Minter may not be Macdonald, but he’s going to do his best at keeping the train that was built – one that propelled Michigan to Big Ten glory, and a College Football Playoff berth – on the track.
Asked what he hopes Michigan’s identity will be defensively this fall, Minter used the terms “relentless,” “competitive” and “team defense.”
“Where you do what’s best for the team, but also where we’ll try to do things to showcase different guys every week,” Minter said. “Maybe a little bit more versatile in that regard, where you don’t have that one guy that’s going to do get 12 to 15 sacks – or (even) two guys.
“I think it’s just going to be a strong comradery of guys that play for each other and play really hard and play really fast, and hopefully it’s something that the fans enjoy watching.”