While the Michigan Wolverines return eight starters on offense and remain largely intact or upgraded at each position, they lose seven starters from last year and have questions at every level.
Fortunately, they return a star-caliber player at each level to build around: defensive tackle Mazi Smith, linebacker Junior Colson and cornerback DJ Turner.
There are several worthy breakout candidates for this unit in 2022. Journeyman defensive end Taylor Upshaw, linebacker Tyler McLaurin and safety Makari Paige were three players who just missed the cut. Freshmen Kenneth Grant, Jimmy Roldler, Mason Graham, Zeke Berry and Keon Sabb were among four of the newcomers to just miss the list as well.
With those players off the board, here are my three candidates to breakout in 2022.
DL Kris Jenkins
This one almost feels too easy. Kris Jenkins was a rotational defensive lineman last season who appeared in every game and even started a pair of them. But due to the depth at the position last year, Jenkins was used sparingly to spell Christopher Hinton.
With Hinton and rotational players Donovan Jeter and Jordan Whittley gone, expect Jenkins’ role to increase drastically. Jenkins, the presumptive starter alongside Smith, has already received praise and expectations from outside and inside the building alike.
Athlon Sports is predicting an all-conference fourth team finish for Jenkins, and Smith made sure to put everyone on notice at Big Ten Media Days.
CB Mike Sainristil
Mikey Sainristil has never missed a game during his first three seasons in Ann Arbor, playing predominantly at wide receiver or on special teams. With life becoming seemingly becoming too easy, he will now accept the challenge of playing both ways in 2022.
With cornerback depth entering the shallows, the senior will try to help fill the void. Sainristil was largely recruited as an athlete and corner coming out of high school, and he quickly flashed those previously dormant skills at the spring game to calm any nerves regarding his new positional assignment.
In limited action, Sainristil ran stride-for-stride with receivers and even broke up a nice ball from quarterback Cade McNamara intended for Andrel Anthony. Given Sainristil’s incredible ball skills, physicality and instincts, I think he is a lock to breakout on defense in 2022.
CB Will Johnson
If there were a betting line for breakout freshman player on either side of the ball, former five-star Will Johnson would be leading the clubhouse around -450. He is expected to step in and immediately contribute as a versatile defensive back in first-year coordinator Jesse Minter’s scheme.
The Wolverines like to operate with players who possess malleable skillsets and can adapt to stop the run or the pass with minimal substitutions. Last year, Dax Hill had that skillset, which helped the team play a hybrid 3-3-5 defense with a trio of safeties spread across the field in nontraditional locations.
If the Wolverines want to play similarly in 2022, Johnson will be an imperative piece to that success by inheriting a version of Hill’s role. Not to mention, Johnson will be a factor on special teams and could be on the team’s opening day kick returner.