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Mike Sainristil’s continued versatility: changing from offense to defense, inside to outside

Mike Sainristil already moved from wide receiver to nickel cornerback last season. Against Ohio State, he had to move positions again, taking over as outside cornerback when Will Johnson went down with a knee injury.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Jacob Singer Jake Singer is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Political Science. He is a Michigan Football and Basketball Writer for SB Nation's Maize and Brew

At the beginning of the third quarter last Saturday, as the Michigan Wolverines held a slim 14-10 lead over the Ohio State Buckeyes, top outside cornerback Will Johnson left the game due to injury. Johnson was matched up for most of the first half with top NFL wide receiver prospect, Marvin Harrison Jr., holding him to just two catches in the half.

When Johnson left, the entire defensive backfield had to reconfigure. Josh Wallace stayed on the outside, Mike Sainristil moved from the nickel position to outside corner, and junior Ja’Den McBurrows played at nickel. It was an all hands on deck approach to account for the star wide receiver.

“(Harrison Jr.) is probably one of the best college receivers in the last 15-20 years, one of the best NFL draft prospects of that position in a long time,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. “Great skillset, and ability to move around. I think there’s a lot of answers you have to have because they can line him up in so many different spots. And then we certainly trust our guys as well. So there were times where (Will Johnson) was on him one on one, there were times where Mike was on him one on one, but we certainly wanted to really try to limit his ability to wreck the game.”

All season long, coaches and players have repeatedly preached about Sainristil’s leadership. A former wide receiver, Sainristil moved to nickel last season and has been playing himself onto an NFL roster, tallying 28 total tackles, one sack and three interceptions this season.

When Johnson went down with his injury, Sainristil had to move off the Buckeyes’ No. 3 receiver and cover the No. 1.

“Yeah, I think it just it speaks to who (Sainristil) is as a person and how much he cares about the game, how much he studies,” Minter said. “His receiver background I think helps him a lot when you can go from inside to outside (cornerback). He’s really good at anticipating routes, reading the body position of receivers so he can anticipate which way they’re cutting and breaking and stuff like that. And then he’s got really good ball skills. I think the thing that still over the two years has surprised me the most is how sure of a tackler he’s become, and his ability to knock down a stiff arm and get a guy on the ground.”

Moving from inside to outside is playing a completely different position. Your reads are different, you are left one-on-one with the receiver more often, and there is usually a size difference in the receivers you cover. Making this shift in-game when your scouting the slot receivers all week is, safe to say, difficult.

“We had a couple of plays in that game that an undisciplined player who doesn’t lead with their hands or lead with their shoulder might be out of the game because some plays set up for what they wanted to be targeting, for Mike and (Quinten Johnson) in particular. But Mike, he’s just such a smart, heavy player who studies the game,” Minter said. “But that doesn’t diminish the skillset that he has. He’s got elite quickness, elite speed, elite ball skills, and then I think his ability to tackle really makes him (versatile). I think somebody’s gonna take him (in the draft), and I think somebody is going to love him as their nickel for a lot of years.”

As for Johnson’s status for the Iowa Hawkeyes this weekend in the Big Ten Championship, it is still up in the air. Luckily for Minter and the defense, however, they showed as recently as last week that other guys can step up in his absence.

“If Will is ready, we’ll play him and we’ll try to keep him at a snap count that we can manage for his situation, but we have a lot of confidence in the other guys to get the job done,” Minter said.

Iowa is not known for a high-octane offense, but the Wolverines still need to play disciplined and sound football in order to three-peat as Big Ten champions. For that, Sainsrstil will need to continue to be a leader and a versatile player to help Michigan accomplish all of its goals for the season.