Something about new Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald clicked with David Ojabo the first time they met. It was the way Macdonald explained things.
Ojabo is one of the top edge rushers in the 2022 NFL Draft, a potential top-15 pick. But he didn't play football until his junior year of high school, and that late start meant Ojabo couldn't lean on experience. So he leaned on Macdonald, who made an instant impact last season during his one year as Michigan's defensive coordinator.
Ojabo said Macdonald communicated with concepts and terminology that allowed the defense to play fast and free, without sacrificing discipline. Ojabo expects Macdonald to have that same impact on Baltimore's defense.
"He's just so relatable," Ojabo said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "He's a people person, a player's coach. He can explain the why, as opposed to just telling you what to do. For me being so new to the sport, it started to click so it comes natural to me."
That gift to connect with people was a factor in Head Coach John Harbaugh's decision to hire Macdonald as the NFL’s youngest coordinator at age 34. Harbaugh watched Macdonald's rapid rise on the Ravens staff, starting as a coaching intern in 2014 and working his way up to linebackers coach before departing for Michigan.
When Macdonald returned for his interview to be the Ravens' defensive coordinator, he was prepared with a detailed plan for Baltimore's defense that he presented to Harbaugh.
"I was able to see his thought process, in terms of the way he built a defense on his own," Harbaugh said last month. "He took the defense and structured it and was able to teach me that, relay that to me, show me how he did it, how he solved the problems that the college game presented and that the pro game presents. … In the end, that was what did it for me."
Macdonald's star pupil at Michigan was edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who could be the top pick in the draft. Hutchison bought into Macdonald's vision quickly, and the decision was made to move Hutchinson from a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end to a stand-up edge rusher. The results were dramatic. After having zero sacks in 2020, Hutchinson had 14 sacks last season and became a game-wrecker for opponents.
Ravens outside linebacker Tyus Bowser is coming of his best season, and the Ravens have other talented young players like Odafe Oweh and Patrick Queen who have multiple skills. Hutchinson believes Baltimore players will love working with Macdonald.
"We saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things from the jump," Hutchinson said. "Mike really influenced me by giving me a lot of freedom in the defense and letting me loose. That's when I'm best when the coordinator trusts me and I trust him. I always knew I had the ability to do it, but I think thanks to coach Mac and the defense he brought in, and me just getting better as a football player, it was a combination of those things."
Versatile safety Daxton Hill, the younger brother of Ravens running back Justice Hill, is another former Michigan player who could be on Baltimore's draft radar. Hill was deployed all over the secondary by Macdonald as safety who might line up in the box, in the slot, or deep in the secondary. Hill finished second on the team in tackles (69) and had nine pass breakups and two interceptions. Starting Ravens safety DeShon Elliott is a pending free agent and Baltimore will benefit from having Macdonald's expert opinion on Hill.
After ranking no worse than seventh in overall defense from (2018-2020), the Ravens ranked 25th in in 2021, and it will take a collaborative effort, help in the draft, and fewer injuries for the unit to improve dramatically.
However, Hutchinson and Ojabo made it clear at the Combine that they loved working with Macdonald, and the Ravens are happy to have him back.
"We're fortunate with Mike Macdonald that he has a history with us," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "He kind of grew up in the NFL with us, and so he understands the culture. I think the scheme is going to be very similar to what we've been doing. We may have some changes along the way, [and] those changes may manifest themselves in terms of how we call the defense or how guys line up and different things. But we've been good on defense for a long time. I think we understand, as an organization, what it takes to be good on defense, the type of players that we're looking for. Mike's been with us, and he'll be a big part of that."