Mike Sainristil got the ball on a crossing route at the 23-yard line, beat his defender and coasted into the end zone.
It was the first drive of Michigan’s Spring Game on Saturday, and though there was no real scoring, it wasn’t lost on the crowd that the freshman wide receiver had scored the opening touchdown — well, insofar as there are touchdowns in a no-tackle scrimmage.
Sainristil is supposed to still be in high school now, preparing for exams, going to prom and planning graduation escapades. Instead, he early-enrolled and joined the Michigan football team. There, he was thrust into a role bigger than he could have imagined.
Under new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, spring ball was supposed to feature a heavy dosage of the Wolverines’ three top receivers — junior Donovan Peoples-Jones, redshirt sophomore Tarik Black and junior Nico Collins. But Black is the only one of those that’s been healthy. With the other two out, it gave Sainristil a chance to get reps with the first-team offense — an opportunity he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There, he’s dazzled, earning praise from players and coaches alike as the freshman that’s stood out the most. Though the spring game itself means very little, the experience players like Sainristil have gained has a much greater significance.
“For a lot of people to come out and get their spot, come out there and show everybody on offense … and show everybody what they can do,” said senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp. “And it’s been a lot of fun seeing how many guys have been able to come and get that play just because it’s been unfortunate with how many people have been hurt.”
As for the injured players themselves, they’ve stayed involved in other ways. In between rehab sessions, they feature heavily in meetings with their respective position groups, learning the playbook, keeping the energy up and encouraging camaraderie.
In the running back room, for instance, there’s a full layout of the field where they draw up plays for simulation. Injured veterans can still take part and impart their wisdom on the new crop of players coming up.
“(Running backs coach Jay Harbaugh) preaches mental reps a lot,” said senior running back Tru Wilson. “And they’re really, they’ve gotta hold the ball on the sidelines, they gotta see the call from the side, they gotta go through the play like they’re in. So it’s helpful for them because everybody knows the play, everybody’s getting work in on every play.”
And when the young players do take the field in place of an injured starter, those veterans have the opportunity to pull them aside and act almost as a second coach, telling them what to work on or what to do when they see certain formations, encouraging them and learning what they’re capable of.
Senior defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour, out with a torn plantar fascia, has especially taken that to heart. He’s aided freshman defensive tackle Mazi Smith on and off the field and helped the entire defensive line learn their roles.
“(Dwumfour’s) done it with all of us,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Donovan Jeter. “Mike’s been in every big game. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, he’s been in all the big games, so if he’s telling you something, he’s telling you something from experience.”
Defensive line and wide receiver are two of the positions with the biggest depth concerns. So while the rash of injuries at those two positions are in one way a bad sign for the Wolverines, those injuries have at the same time given reps to players who may not have gotten them otherwise. That helps build up a steady stream of backups waiting in the wings should one of those players go down. Spring camp is a big step up from high school, giving those players valuable development time.
“Adapting real fast to spring ball, the practices are longer, everything’s longer,” said redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Andrew Stueber. “So it’s kind of more brutal. And if you get through that, then practices in the fall and the camps, it’s shorter, and you’re kind of used to how the play goes and how the practice goes.”
And with Black, Peoples-Jones and Dwumfour all expected back for the start of the season, the young players will face tough competition in fall camp.
Then, when they get the chance to step into the spotlight — whether in a year or two when their predecessors graduate, or because of an injury — they’ll be ready to shine.