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Preseason Position Grades: Michigan’s CB2 battle likely to head into season

Will Johnson is locked in, but who will be behind him?

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The coaching staff has done an excellent job of developing NFL-caliber cornerbacks during Jim Harbaugh’s time in Ann Arbor. Heading into 2023, he may have his best of the bunch in sophomore Will Johnson. There’s no denying the talent he has after major contributions in the Michigan Wolverines’ secondary at the end of last season.

Harbaugh knows the weapon he has with Johnson. On Inside Michigan Football with Jon Jansen, Harbaugh claimed Ohio State was moving Marvin Harrison Jr. away from Johnson in Michigan’s 45-23 win in Columbus last season. That’s a dude no one could slow down, so you can imagine how highly the coaching staff thinks of Johnson heading into the fall.

But the talk of the offseason has been who will play opposite of him on the outside. Transfer Josh Wallace has a strong chance to fill that role, but Amorion Walker was being called the starter prior to Wallace coming in. Ja’Den McBurrows and starting nickelback Mike Sainristil could have a case as well.

However, the headlines that have come out of this room in the summer have been far out of touch with reality. Some have said it’s the greatest concern on the roster, but I think they have a lot of talent here that will shake itself out as the season goes on.

Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said the same thing when talking with the media on Thursday. “We’re trying to use a method where it’s a different guy every day. Nobody’s really taken it and ran with it. I think somebody eventually will separate themselves.”

The answer to the starting five defensive backs may even come to some transitions between corner and safety, per Minter.

“We’re trying to find the best combination of five DBs in a lot of our nickel-type stuff that we’ve tried a lot of different combinations that could be a combination of multiple positions: corners, safeties, nickels. We’re trying to find that best-five combination, and I think early on it will come.”

Cornerback - Grade: B

  • Starters: Will Johnson, Josh Wallace
  • Nickel: Mike Sainristil
  • Contention for starter: Amorion Walker, Ja’Den McBurrows
  • Backups: Myles Pollard, Kody Jones, Keshaun Harris, Keon Sabb
  • True Freshmen: Jyaire Hill, Cameron Calhoun

What’s nice is the Wolverines have three premier traits for each guy who could start at the second corner spot. However, when the first defensive snap is taken against East Carolina on Sept. 2, I suspect Wallace will have the first go as CB2. The one thing he has over both McBurrows and Walker is experience. Wallace was a three-time captain at UMass and has started 34 games in his career. That’s one thing you just can’t teach, and he’s going to continue to acclimate to Minter’s defense in fall camp.

“He’s a pro,” Minter told the media on Thursday. “You can tell he’s played a lot of football. He’s played against really good competition. He came in and I think probably the smartest thing he did was he jumped in Mikey (Sainristil)’s hip pocket from the day he got here. Those guys have been like, twin brothers in the building all the time. So the learning curve has been pretty, I would say, smooth for him and how he’s picked things up. And he’s added a great value to that competition so far.”

Meanwhile, Walker’s top trait is freakish athleticism. He was once named a starter and was receiving rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike. But after a rough spring game performance, it appears that role may no longer be his. Both Steve Clinkscale and Minter have voiced concern about the mental part of being a corner, citing the pressure of the position and how difficult it is to break out of a funk. There’s no doubt Walker has the intangibles and athletic ability to start, but it seems like a bit of an uphill battle right now.

As for McBurrows, injuries have derailed his career up to this point, as a knee injury ended his freshman campaign and kept him out for all of 2022. Last August, Clinkscale called McBurrows “a junior Clink” and said he was basically a coach on the field. He has the smarts to be the starter, but has only played in four career games due to those injuries.

“That battle will continue I would imagine into the season,” Minter said. “Maybe one guy one game; one game, the next. Similar to how coach (Harbaugh) did the quarterback competition last year where maybe one guy and it’s really like how you play in games and how you play. The best players will show themselves as the season goes on.”

Sainristil will be the starter at nickel, unless one of the backups shines and no one emerges at CB2. In that case, he could slide into an outside position and allow a guy like McBurrows, Kody Jones or Zeke Berry to take over at nickel.

Behind the starting group, there are a lot of guys to like. Keon Sabb is a hybrid safety/nickel who will see the field this fall. Some good things have also been said about Myles Pollard, and Jyaire Hill, the latter having put together a really nice spring.

The big thing that seems to be preached for these younger guys is flexibility and fluidity, as transitions from corner to safety (or vice versa) have been common over the last few years. I think this room isn’t getting as much love as it should because of the versatility that so many of them have across the board heading into the fall. While CB2 is something to watch, it is far less concerning to me than what others think.