Throughout spring ball, Mike Sainristil’s name had an inescapable presence inside Schembechler Hall.
Offensive players praised the three-star freshman receiver. Defensive players said he was terrifying to face. Coaches spoke ad nauseam about his adaption to the college game.
“He’s been really good,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, summarizing the general consensus at the time. “Can’t say enough good things about him.”
Fall ball, though, brought a different reality.
Suddenly, Sainristil was absent. Ronnie Bell took his place at the center of the Wolverines’ ever-churning hype machine and actually followed up with production, while Sainristil notched just one catch for eight yards through seven games.
“Coming in from spring ball, the speed adjustment was really a big factor,” Sainristil said. “… Fall camp is just more game reality. Putting yourself in those game situations compared to spring ball is when (we do) big installs.”
That, in turn, lowered a confidence that had soared throughout the spring.
“A couple times during fall camp, a couple times during season practices where I just really wasn’t locked in,” Sainristil said. “Because I was just feeling like I wasn’t giving my all to the team. I kinda didn’t like the position I was in.”
Slowly, though, Sainristil has begun working his way onto the field, mostly as the slot receiver in three and four-wide looks.
Saturday against Notre Dame, he doubled his career reception total with a key second-quarter third-down conversion. Two quarters later, he notched his first collegiate touchdown, weaving through a trio of would-be tacklers for a 26-yard score to put Michigan up, 45-7.
“It felt great scoring for the first time,” Sainristil said. “… And it surprised me that my first touchdown was against Notre Dame.”
Sainristil knows that he’s not a central cog in the Wolverines’ offense. Bell, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black take that mantle, with 82 of Michigan’s 92 receiver receptions between them.
It’s part of what makes the regular season different from spring ball, when Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black were out, allowing Sainristil to thrive. But it’s also given him an opportunity to develop at his own pace, adapting to the college game over the course of the past three months.
“Really seeing a lot of growth from Mikey,” Harbaugh said. “The last four weeks, especially in practice, he’s really gained a lot of confidence in catching the football. He’s always been really good at route running. He went through a little spell there where he wasn’t catching the ball great. Now his confidence is back and surging.”
Sainristil’s route to this point took the path of most freshman contributors. It required hours in front of the jug machine, working with graduate assistant coach and former Michigan wide receiver Roy Roundtree. Every time the Wolverines had what Sainristil calls an “opportunity practice,” Roundtree’s message was simple: “Come out, have a day.” Sainristil took that message to heart, knowing it would eventually translate to game scenarios.
All of that is normal. The difference for Sainristil is where expectations stood six months ago, when he was praised as Michigan’s next freshman sensation.
Since then, he has been able to push his position on the depth chart out of his mind, focusing instead on his own performances.
The result is a catching ability that’s finally caught up to his route-running and yards-after-catch savvy. The proof is a trio of catches and a game-high 73 yards in Michigan’s biggest win of the year.
Thinking back on the touchdown catch that defined his day, Sainristil knows that it didn’t win Michigan the game, that it won’t catapult him to the top of the depth chart, that it isn’t going to make the coming weeks any easier.
And yet, as he spoke, he couldn’t help a massive smile from spilling over his face.
“I wouldn’t say I overcame a lot within these months that I’ve been here, but it was just a big relief,” Sainristil said. “I just wanted to get into the end zone.”