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Unsung heroes of the 2022 Michigan football season

These guys deserved a little more love.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 Big 10 Championship - Michigan vs Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By and large, the 2022 season for the Michigan Wolverines has been dictated by their most significant contributors. Players like Blake Corum and J.J McCarthy on offense, and Junior Colson and Mazi Smith on defense have shaped the identity and outcome of a historic 13-0 season headed into the College Football Playoff.

That isn’t to say there weren’t others who left their mark on the season — far from it. Here are a few of the so-called “unsung heroes” for 2022.

Karsen Barnhart and Giovanni El-Hadi

Last season, the Michigan offensive line wowed the nation on the back of a core five guys — Ryan Hayes, Trevor Keegan, Andrew Vastardis, Zak Zinter and Andrew Stueber. While there was some shuffling here and there with the unavoidable aches and pains of a long season, those five played all but a handful of snaps through the year.

That consistency hasn’t been the same in 2022, yet the group is still considered one of, if not the best in college football. Not only have Gio El-Hadi and Karsen Barnhart proven to be reliable emergency hands, they’ve proven to be reliable hands, period.

For Barnhart, his path this season has been relatively straightforward. Though he was beaten out for the starting right tackle job by Trente Jones in fall camp, it was clear Barnhart had made a serious push and earned the trust of his coaches. When Jones was hurt during the Indiana game, there was zero doubt who’d the next man up would be. Since then, Barnhart has been a bedrock member of the line — even after Jones was reported to be back at full strength.

While El-Hadi in contrast has had less defined a role, his contribution has been almost as important. If the offensive line could be compared to a starting five in basketball, El-Hadi has settled comfortably into a “sixth-man” role — rotating in with considerable regularity into the left guard spot while also occasionally seeing snaps as the “extra offensive lineman” when Michigan is in a run-heavy formation.

Mike Sainristil

Is it cheap to include a captain on a list of unsung heroes? Maybe a little. But after Sainristil only garnered Honorable Mention honors in the All-Big Ten voting, I think it’s justified to say there are people out there who don’t realize just how incredible his transition to defense has truly been.

This time last year, Sainristil was among the unsung heroes as a receiver; he hadn’t played defense since his senior year of high school. Heading into camp, there was a question of whether Sainristil would beat freshman Zeke Berry for the nickel spot. And even among those who thought he’d start, it wasn’t guaranteed he’d see the field all that regularly.

Three months later, Sainristil has become of the brightest spots in an already strong secondary for the Wolverines. He’s compiled 51 tackles, two sacks and seven pass breakups. With a return in 2023 already announced, the chances Sainristil finds himself again on a Maize n Brew unsung heroes list next year are almost nonexistent.

George Helow

Usually, this article has only focused on the players who have made contributions to the team’s success. This year though, I’m inclined to add a positional coach into the fold — linebackers coach George Helow.

Entering the season, the weak spot on the team was presumed by consensus to be in the second level of the defense. That view was intensified following an undisclosed but lingering injury to projected starter Nikhai Hill-Green, who hasn’t seen the field this season.

To his credit, Helow has turned the guys he does have into legitimate contributors. With Junior Colson being named second and third team All-Big Ten by the coaches and media, along with Michael Barrett picking up a third team nod by the coaches as well, no one is calling the linebackers a weak spot on this team anymore. A lot of the credit for that elevation unquestionably should go to Helow’s coaching.