There were very few question marks surrounding Michigan’s defense heading into the 2023 season, but the cornerback spot opposite Will Johnson was the biggest of them all. With the soft schedule for two-thirds of the regular season, we didn’t get a real look at how good the secondary was until they played more evenly matched competition late in the year.
The Wolverines didn’t get much of a challenge in the passing game until their showdowns with Maryland and Ohio State, where both teams threw for more than 240 yards. Michigan gave up some yards through the air down the stretch, but the ability to lock down in the red zone and keep points off the board resulted in the secondary being the No. 2 ranked pass defense in the country.
Today, we recap the efforts of the cornerbacks for the 2023 season.
The freshman cornerback shined towards the end of 2022. It was apparent Michigan had something special in him, which was no surprise considering he was one of the top-five corners in the nation as a recruit. Heading into the 2023 season, Johnson was easily slotted as Michigan’s CB1.
Following the 2022 season, Johnson had a scope done on his right knee. The procedure sidelined him through the spring and summer, playing in a very limited capacity during non-conference play. When Johnson was restored to playing at full capacity, he picked up right where he left off.
Johnson ended the season with 27 tackles and four interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The sophomore regularly shut down opposing team’s best wideouts and kept stars such as Marvin Harrison Jr. and Rome Odunze at bay. Quarterbacks often avoided targeting the receiver covered by Johnson, respecting his ability to generate takeaways and swing momentum.
As Johnson heads into his junior year, it is safe to assume the 2024 season is likely his last in Ann Arbor. He is expected to be one of the best corners in college football and very likely a first-round NFL draft pick in 2025. Johnson will be tested heavily next season as Michigan faces a daunting schedule against multiple pass-heavy teams.
When it was announced that Josh Wallace was transferring in from UMass, Michigan knew it landed a player with a lot of experience to help bolster the secondary.
Although it was unknown if Wallace would start opposite of Johnson to begin the season, it quickly became apparent he was the best player for the job. He ended the season with 33 tackles, and although he didn’t have an interception on the year, he did record one forced fumble and snagged two fumble recoveries. His leadership and experience was on full display all season.
Wallace was handed a tall task when lined up opposite of Johnson. Given Johnson’s reputation as one of the best corners in the country, offenses regularly tried to take advantage of targeting Wallace instead. He lived up to the challenge and played exceptionally all season. Wallace is off to the NFL, ending his short-lived college career at Michigan as a national champion.
When Mike Macdonald joined Michigan’s staff in 2021 to be the defensive coordinator, the scheme in Ann Arbor rapidly changed. The way in which the defense was ran became increasingly complex, making it more difficult for opposing offenses to exploit weaknesses. The coaching staff recognized talent and made changes where need be, converting former wide receiver Mike Saintristil to defense.
Starting as a nickel in 2022, Sainristil showcased his talents week in and week out. Although undersized, he was a great open field tackler with a high football IQ. Following a 58-tackle season in 2022 — with highlights such as his end zone pass breakup against Ohio State tight end Cade Stover in Columbus — it was obvious he was going to be one of Michigan’s best defenders in 2023.
The two-time captain ended his last season in college with 44 tackles and a whopping six interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He showed up in huge moments the last two seasons, ultimately icing the National Championship with an interception in the fourth quarter. Both he and Johnson were named All-Big Ten First-Team defense, and Sainristil will go down in history as a Michigan legend.
Other noteworthy DBs
- Jyaire Hill: A huge benefit to Michigan’s soft schedule in 2023 was getting backups playing time. With a very difficult schedule on the horizon in 2024 and the expected departure of several key players, this playing time will serve to be very valuable. Hill only appeared in four games, preserving his redshirt. He made the most of his opportunity, recording eight tackles on the season. Hill was a four-star recruit with a lot of talent, likely poised to play a bigger role in 2024.
- DJ Waller Jr.: The most used corner from the group of freshmen was, surprisingly, Waller. A low ranked three-star high school recruit who committed late in the process, he appeared in 11 games and recorded eight tackles and one pass breakup. He was also named the Defensive Freshman of the Week on five occasions. He should be viewed as one of the top competitors for CB2 opposite of Johnson for the 2024 season.
- Ja’Den McBurrows: Although he ended the 2023 season with only seven tackles, McBurrows’ biggest highlight was an interception against MSU at Spartan Stadium. He will once again compete for a starting job next season, with a big opportunity to get significantly more playing time at the nickel position now that Sainristil is off to the NFL.
- Keshaun Harris: The Wolverines can credit their health in the secondary with good depth players. While Harris played in a more limited capacity, he still ended the season with 11 tackles. The graduate senior brought plenty of experience to the room, challenging Wallace for a starting role to begin the season.