clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From Receiver to Zero: Mike Sainristil leaves Michigan a legend

As a receiver and a defensive back, Magic Mike will live on in Michigan lore forever.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

2024 CFP National Championship - Michigan v Washington Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

“When magic needs to happen, Mike makes it happen.”

Following Michigan’s third straight Big Ten Championship victory, Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh bragged about the game’s MVP. Cornerback Mike Sainristil finished with two tackles, one pass deflection and two timely forced fumbles in the 26-0 shutout of Iowa. The performance was a microcosm of who Sainristil had become during his five years in Ann Arbor. Whatever the team needed — interceptions, forced fumbles, sure-tackling, pass-break-ups, highlight reel catches, touchdowns, motivating speeches — Sainristil delivered.

A former three-star recruit from Massachusetts, Sainristil was never expected to be a star at the next level. 247Sports’ Allen Trieu, who does a great job at evaluating high school talent, broke down Sainristil’s collegiate outlook in the fall of 2018:

“Below-average height for the position, but has a strong lower body. Had an excellent senior season on offense, showing his ball skills and using his athleticism to create separation. Shows awareness and smarts when playing zone and tends to be in good position to make plays. Is a threat after he catches interceptions with his open-field ability. Shows good burst and closing speed. Can still improve quickness and footwork with his transition and change of direction. Projects as a slot corner who can play man-to-man, but must prove he can handle bigger receivers on the outside. Smart, dependable football player who should find a niche in college.”

Sainristil quickly found his niche, but it wasn’t high-usage end-arounds like Eddie McDoom or wildcat packages like Alex Orji — it was showing up in big moments, even at a different position. Shortly after enrolling in the winter, Sainristil switched to wide receiver despite joining a crowded room. Through “opportunity” practice periods, Sainristil emerged as a contributing receiver and introduced himself to the world against Notre Dame in 2019.

The 45-14 victory was by far Michigan’s best win of the season, and most fans rightfully remember it for running back Hassan Haskins’s performance (20 carries for 149 yards) and the torrential downpour that plagued most of the contest. But a select few remember the leading receiver was actually not Ronnie Bell, Donovan Peoples-Jones, or current NFL superstar Nico Collins. It was Mike Sainristil.

Sainristil registered three receptions for 73 yards — more than Bell, DPJ and Collins combined — and his first career touchdown. It was an unlikely supporting performance from a future star like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hilarious turn as Dustin in Twister. But like Hoffman, who wasn’t destined for comedic glory — although he absolutely rips in Along Came Polly — Sainristil was not destined for offensive glory, although it began to appear that way in 2021.

For the season, Sainristil finished as the WR3 with 22 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns, but that doesn’t capture the sensational receptions he hauled in that season. It felt like every game, fans were waiting around for something amazing to happen like the nosy toddler neighbor in The Incredibles.

Sainristil delivered multiple circus catches that year that would lead most career highlight reels. First, it was the lay-out deep shot against Nebraska, and then the one-handed snag on a corner route against Maryland. But just as he had done as a freshman, Sainristil showed up the most in the biggest games.

His performance against Michigan State was lost to the ether because of the outcome, but Sainristil’s two receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown were almost enough to preserve perfection in East Lansing. Against Ohio State in the snow, it was Sainristil who hauled in one of the biggest receptions of Michigan’s season on a 34-yard flea flicker to set up a touchdown. Any time Team 142 needed a play through the air, it was often Sainristil’s name that was called.

Sainristil was named the co-winner of Michigan’s Top Offensive Skill Player Award and was one of the guiding forces in Michigan’s magical turnaround that season. It appeared Sainristil was destined for a journeyman-like career with a basement trajectory of Grant Perry and the ceiling of Ronnie Bell. But then the weirdest thing happened in spring ball: Sainristil — after three seasons as a contributing wide receiver — switched to defense to play nickel corner.

After losing Dax Hill to the NFL Draft, the Wolverines had a gaping hole in their secondary and no one to fill it. After years of joking around with the defensive staff about helping them out, the senior selflessly switched positions for the betterment of the team. This commitment and potential sacrifice undoubtedly led to Sainristil being named a team captain prior to the start of the 2022 season.

From the beginning of the 2022 season, Sainristil was a force for the defense. In the first four games at his new position, he recorded two sacks, four tackles for loss, and flashed an unprecedented aggression for a player in the midst of an unprecedented late-career position switch. All season long, the slot was on lock with Sainristil across the line. And in the biggest moment of the biggest game of the season, Sainristil solidified himself as not only a rare player who can excel on either side of the ball, but as a Michigan legend.

For the second time in the rivalry’s history, Michigan and Ohio State faced off with both teams holding perfect 11-0 records. The Wolverines appeared to be merely holding on early as nothing was working offensively, but Sainristil was not worried. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman captured a speech that Sainristil delivered on the sidelines in the heat of battle:

“I want all you guys to take a look at their sideline. Look at them!” Mike Sainristil, Michigan’s wiry nickelback and team captain, yelled to his teammates gathered around him, as he pointed across the field to the Buckeyes sideline. “They have their heads down. We know who the f— they are! They are exactly who we thought they are! Let’s keep our foot on the gas. Keep executing. Don’t give them anything. Keep taking everything.

“Y’all wanna win the natty? It starts right now!”

The Wolverines responded to their captain’s words and built an 11-point lead, but with 8:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes were threatening. Facing a third-and-four from the Michigan nine-yard line, Ohio State drew up a slow-developing touchdown shot to tight end Cade Stover.

After a lengthy play-action setup and a good pass rush, quarterback C.J. Stroud lofted a ball to the side of the end zone to a seemingly open Stover. But as the ball began to softly land in the tight end’s hands, Sainristil — at the last second — shot his arm into the middle of Stover’s catch point for a Hall of Fame-level pass break-up.

Ohio State would settle for a field goal and on Michigan’s next offensive snap, running back Donovan Edwards broke free for a 75-yard dagger.

Sainristil led Michigan back to the College Football Playoff (CFP) where he recorded his first career interception, but the Wolverines fell to TCU in the semifinal.

The first-year nickelback was named Michigan’s Top Defensive Skill Player Award with 58 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. But Sainristil didn’t switch positions to win individual accolades — he switched positions to help this team win a National Championship, and in 2023 as a two-time Michigan captain, he took his game to historic heights in pursuit of college football’s crown.

In the first game of the season, Sainristil set the tone with an early interception that sparked the offense’s first touchdown. Against Rutgers, Sainristil secured his second interception, essentially squatted his 247-pound middle linebacker, and then dashed more than 70 yards for his first career defensive touchdown.

A few weeks later, Sainristil struck again with a 72-yard pick-six against Michigan State in a 49-0 blowout. Against Maryland, with quarterback J.J. McCarthy almost unable to stand due to an injury, Sainristil helped close the show himself with two clutch interceptions. The following week against Ohio State, Sainristil flatted Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson and primarily played boundary corner — frequently guarding generational wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. — in the second half due to an injury to Will Johnson.

In the Rose Bowl, Sainristil helped the secondary shut the water off on every Alabama pass catcher and posted a season-high six tackles in the 27-20 OT thriller. But in order for Michigan to win it all, Sainristil and the secondary would have to defend Washington’s explosive offense and the nation’s best trio of receivers. But just as Mike has done time and time again, he rose to the occasion in the biggest moment of his career.

Protecting a two-touchdown lead halfway through the fourth quarter, Michigan needed one stop to win the game; one stop to win the national championship. Needing a play facing a fourth-and-13, Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw high of his intended target and right into the arms of No. 0.

Sainristil returned the ball 81 yards — his 81 interception yards were only six yards off Washington’s leading receiver Rome Odunze’s receiving total — and set up a Blake Corum dagger touchdown. For the last time, when Michigan needed a little magic, Mike delivered.

Sainristil finished the 2023 season third in the country in interceptions (six), second in pick-sixes (two), and earned first-team All-American honors from ESPN, Fox Sports and The Sporting News. Sainristil scored as many touchdowns in his final year as a corner as he did in his final year as a receiver.

When I began researching this article I typed “Mike Sainristil” in the search bar to begin my journey. Suggestions popped up like they always do, but something was different for him. When I search for Aidan Hutchinson, “Aidan Hutchinson — Football defensive end” populates, and when I search for Blake Corum, “Blake Corum — Football running back” is suggested. For Sainristil, it’s just “Football player,” and that’s exactly who he is.

No stage was ever too big for the undersized three-star regardless of what side of the ball he was on. Sainristil leaves behind a legacy as a blue-collar contributor in all facets of winning on and off the field; a leader willing to do anything to help his team succeed; a Michigan legend whose resume is only comparable to another legend from Michigan’s 1997 title team.

Team 142 doesn’t go 12-2 and beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade without Sainristil. Team 143 doesn’t beat Ohio State again en route to a 13-0 record without FR0Z0NE. Team 144 doesn’t feature one of the best college football defenses of all time and win a national championship with a perfect 15-0 mark without Magic Mike.