Michigan’s Mike Sainristil preparing for move outside, just in case

By Aaron McMann
The ongoing pursuit of a second starting cornerback could mean a change of duties for one of Michigan’s leaders on defense.
Speaking last week at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, head coach Jim Harbaugh named defensive backs Will Johnson and Mike Sainristil definitive starters this fall, but left open their roles in the Wolverines’ defensive backfield.
Johnson is a shoe-in at corner, having emerged as one of the best young players in the conference last season, while Sainristil’s role is up for expansion.
“It’ll come down to a situation where Mikey (Sainristil) will be a starter, Will Johnson will be a starter, and then who is that other starter — whether it’s at nickel or corner? It may take training camp,” Harbaugh said. “It may take into the first couple of games.”
Sainristil is a former receiver who made the leap to the defensive side last offseason, taking up the “nickel” spot when Michigan goes to a 4-2-5 alignment on the field. The “5″ represents the number of players in the backfield, oftentimes on second and third down when a team is more likely to throw the ball, while a “nickel” replaces a third linebacker.
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound back made a quick impression and wound up starting 11 games, totaling 58 tackles (6 1/2 for a loss) and two sacks while adding an interception and eight pass breakups. Sainristil really shined late in the season, racking up seven tackles and a pair of pass breakups against Ohio State and seven tackles and an interception against Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I’ve put myself in a position to where I can expand my football knowledge in terms of knowing what I need to know,” Sainristil said. “Because the more positions I know, the easier it will be for me to help other guys line up.”
Sainristil lined up as a traditional cornerback only sparingly last season, but his workload on the outside has picked up this year. He estimated that his reps at corner in the spring equaled the number of reps he took at nickel, signaling a move outside is possible as Michigan searches for a full-time replacement for D.J. Turner.
The hope internally was that Amorion Walker, another former receiver, would make a smooth transition to the outside. And while Walker remains a candidate for the job, with Harbaugh predicting he would win it early in spring, Michigan added a more experienced cornerback, Josh Wallace from Massachusetts, via the transfer portal over the summer.
How quickly Wallace can pick things up and learn the Wolverines’ playbook could determine whether he earns the starting job out of the gate. Moving Sainristil to the outside and slotting Walker, listed at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, at nickel could make more sense.
Asked about his willingness to move into the more traditional corner role, Sainristil said he’s “very comfortable” doing so.
“I view myself as a guy who’s willing to do whatever — play whatever position — to help the defense help the team,” Sainristil said. “Wherever my coaches need me, I’m going to make sure that if they ask me to go play corner — I’m going to be the best corner I can be.”
The rest of Michigan’s secondary is largely set, with starting safeties Rod Moore and Makari Paige back for another season, and Johnson primed for a breakout season at corner.
Behind them, however, is a lot of unknown. Veteran safety R.J. Moten transferred to Florida during the offseason, while Michigan has a lot of young, inexperienced options at corner, Walker included.
That makes camp and the practices leading up to the Sept. 2 season opener against East Carolina so important. It gives the coaching staff time to evaluate where things stand with Walker, Sainristil and Wallace, the transfer, and find the right combination in the backfield.
Because Michigan’s title hopes could hinge on it.

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