Mike Sainristil might be a coach one day.
Or at least, he has everything it takes to be one.
Sainristil, a senior cornerback, was the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year in high school and the No. 1 recruit in the state. At Michigan, he’s blossomed since joining the program in 2019 — seeing playing time since his freshman year at both wide receiver and on special teams.
One coaching trait Sainristil possesses is adaptability. The Everett, Mass. native is switching to cornerback — a rather dramatic change for a player who finished with the third most yards among receivers for the Wolverines last season. But Sainristil has dove head first into his new role since the spring. He quickly picked up the defensive scheme and is expected to see significant playing time in the secondary entering week one.
Beyond this season, Sainristil doesn’t know exactly what the future holds. But should he ever enter the coaching ranks, his mind is made up on what level he’d want to coach.
“If I do (coach), I think I’m only going to do high school or below,” Sainristil said. “Just because, I just want to prepare guys for what this level brings and give them my experience of what it felt like for me being in college. And I definitely want to help be there for guys during the recruiting process if that’s what my career ends up being.”
For Sainristil, it’s only natural he’d want to share his desire to contribute in any possible way with future generations.
It’s all he knows how to do.
Prior to playing for the Wolverines, Sainristil was a three-way star at Everett High School. Spending time at wide receiver, running back, kick returner and cornerback, he had little time for rest. He helped lead his team to back-to-back Division 1 state championships in 2016 and 2017. As a senior in 2018, Sainristil fell just short of a three-peat, with his team losing in the semi-finals — but he still put up an audacious stat line in the process.
He pulled in 32 catches for 792 yards and 12 touchdowns as receiver in addition to 290 rushing yards and five scores on the ground. He also snagged six interceptions that year, including three in one game.
“It’s a dream come true to have (coached) a player and person like Mike Sainristil,” former Everett head coach Theluxon Pierre said in 2018. “It makes my job a lot easier. He is a very coachable kid, someone the younger players look up to because of the way he is. He’s just an awesome kid who does it all both on and off the field.”
That attribute earned Sainristil notoriety as a recruit, and he received offers to play offense at some schools and defense at others. While he originally committed to Virginia Tech in the winter of his junior year, he was subsequently pursued by Michigan, with then-defensive coordinator Don Brown leading the charge to bring him in on defense. Sainristil eventually decommitted from the Hokies and signed with the Wolverines in December of 2018 — allowing him to enroll early and practice with the team by January.
“When I got here I said I’d rather play offense,” Sainristil said. “I just always wanted to play offensively because I just like having the ball in my hands. I like making plays. But since I’ve been here, I was always joking around with the defensive coaches, you know, saying whenever you guys need me to play defense, let me know, I’ll come and play.”
Even those jokes had some truth behind them.
While he only appeared on offense in his first two seasons, Sainristil never closed the door on playing in the secondary. Late in the 2020 season, he worked with former cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich and started learning defensive techniques.
Last year, he stepped into a larger receiving role, corralling 22 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns while also handling some return duties. But despite the added usage, he still broached the idea of playing on the other side of the ball with the defensive coach staff — even pushing for it during Ohio State week.
This offseason, that chance finally materialized. The departure of starting defensive backs Dax Hill, Vince Gray and Brad Hawkins opened up glaring holes in the secondary. This, coupled with a crowded wide receivers room, created an avenue for Sainristil to switch sides.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw a unique opportunity to utilize Sainristil on defense.
“The cool thing was, he was taking his offensive knowledge and (was) able to apply that as a secondary defender,” Harbaugh said during the offseason. “Because as a corner, as a nickel, he knows what the receiver is trying to get done and how he’s trying to do it.”
In February, Harbaugh talked to Sainristil about wanting to try him out on defense. Of course, Sainristil jumped for it.
“I’m not sure how other guys view it on the team but for myself, I’m willing to do whatever for this team,” Sainristil said. “If a coach put me at o-line, I would do it just simply because I love this team. I love my teammates. I love the coaches. I’ll literally do whatever for this team.”
Sainristil believes in adapting to his team’s needs, no matter what end of the field — or sideline — he’s on. In May, he ran the aptly named Versatility Football Camp back home in Everett, giving him the chance to pay it forward and teach pre-high school football players about putting their full effort into any position they’re playing.
So it’s no surprise that when he got his first cornerback reps in spring ball, he committed himself to the process.
On the first day of spring ball, Sainristil was timid and didn’t make many plays on the ball. But soon, the results started to show. He quickly handled the learning curve, started to pick up the intricacies in coverage and was even the first player to pick off senior quarterback Cade McNamara in practice.
“By halfway through spring ball, he was rolling,” graduate wide receiver Ronnie Bell said. “He was ready to go and you could see how comfortable and how many more plays he was making on that side of the ball. Talking to him about it, he just is fired up to be on the field.”
Bell’s words speak volumes considering how close the two are. They’ve spent the last three years together in the wide receiver room and after Bell tore his ACL in the Wolverines’ first game last season, Sainristil was there to pick up the slack.
The pair are also roommates — and now they share another distinction:
Bell already held the position last year and it was no surprise to see him retain the honor. For Sainristil, though, it was a coronation; a sign that his relentless team-first mentality hasn’t gone unnoticed in the locker room.
“He wants to be on the field, he wants to make plays and he wants to dominate,” Bell said. “That’s how he approaches everything he does and that’s why he’s so successful. That’s why guys respect him the way that they do and voted him captain. A guy like that, it’s almost impossible not to want to follow.”
Sainstril is ready to embrace his two new roles — playing at a new position and being considered an unequivocal leader of the team. Since he set foot on campus, he has been committed to doing whatever he can to turn things around for Michigan. He was in the locker room when the Wolverines bottomed out in their 2-4, Covid-riddled season and he was on the field in Indianapolis as the confetti fell and Michigan was crowned Big Ten champions.
The personal achievements have always remained on the backburner. For him, the ’C’ on the jersey is just a letter.
“At any point during the season, if there’s any time it feels like things are shaky, I’m just definitely somebody I want (the team) to lean on,” Sainristil said. “Not only because they voted me as captain, but because I view myself as a true leader on this team. I just (want to make) sure that they understand that I’m going to continue giving them my all every single day, so I will be there for my teammates.”
The unselfish mentality has been instilled in him for a long time. He played three different ways in high school and delivered significant contributions in every facet of the game. He’s never wavered on his love for the team and now, he’s willingly switched positions after playing wide receiver for his entire collegiate career.
It’s an attitude that can’t be taught.
Unless, maybe one day, it’s Mike Sainristil doing the teaching.