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Zero on the jersey, hero on the defense: Mike Sainristil’s leadership is vital to Michigan

Mike Sainristil may be number zero on the field, but he is the number one influencer in the locker room.

East Carolina v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Two years ago, Mike Sainristil was just another wide receiver on the Michigan football team. Fast forward to 2023, and he is now a two-time captain on the defense and just got an interception in the first game of the season against East Carolina.

As any wide receiver would when committing to a school, Sainristil wanted to have the ball in his hands to score touchdowns and make plays when he chose to attend Michigan. In three seasons as a receiver, Sainristil had 36 receptions for 532 yards and five touchdowns.

At the end of the 2021 season, however, head coach Jim Harbaugh asked if he would switch to cornerback, an unusual move for a player who spent all three seasons as a primary wide receiver for the Wolverines.

While some players may have entered the transfer portal or shied away from the challenge, Mikey embraced it and ran with the opportunity.

In his first season as a defensive back in 2022, Sainristil not only learned the position quickly, but excelled at it. He started all 14 games for the Wolverines, accumulating 58 total tackles, two sacks and an interception. He also made arguably the most important play of Michigan’s season when he broke up a touchdown for Buckeyes tight end Cade Stover, tapping into his remarkable speed and power and disrupting the pass with his left hand.

Now in 2023, Sainristil is a seasoned vet, watching film outside of team meetings, taking younger players under his wing and working on his craft for the next level.

“In my opinion, we have followers, leaders, and we have influencers, I think Mike is an influencer,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said. “I think Mike has changed the mindset of everybody on our team, not just the defensive backs because he’s easy to be drawn to. If I was a player, and if I wasn’t Mike, I would be right there next to him.”

Sainristil recognizes being a leader in the locker room. Named captain the last two years, he is not only worried about his play on the field, but the play of his teammates as well.

“(Sainristil is) so easy to talk to,” safety Keon Sabb said. “When he comes into a room, it’s a different feeling. Any time the players lead anything or anytime the coaches aren’t there, Mike just calls the group up. You just gravitate towards him. He’s one of those guys.”

Clinkscale added: “(Sainristil is) a great guy to be around. He’s always trying to do things with the players. He’s never like ‘I’m too busy.’ If the young guys want to come to watch film, and we may not be running meetings, Mike texts them, ‘Hey young guys, I’m in the building, anybody around, I’m here to watch film.’ And that’s why they want to be around him because he shows them, just like a coach, that he cares and he loves them. So they always want to be around him. I love that kid.”

Sainristil’s influence in the locker room has also resulted in his play on the field. Against ECU on Saturday, he had an interception and one solo tackle, swinging all of the momentum in the game toward Michigan.

“We watched film last week,” Clinkscale said. “We watched a guy play man defense and make a great play. And guess who it was? Number zero. We watched him destroy a block. Guess who it was? Number zero. He got beat on the play. And the guy caught the ball and ran down the sideline, and (Sainristil) punched it out. Sound familiar guys? Number zero. He never stops. He’s always going and going and going. And if he makes a mistake, like I mentioned earlier, the great ones, they correct it.”

While he will continue to be the hardest worker in the room, Sainristil is also laying the foundation for the future of Michigan football, teaching and mentoring the younger players to create a pipeline of defensive backs to come through and go on to play at the next level.