Watching senior defensive back Mike Sainristil in the first three games of the No. 4 Michigan football team’s season, you wouldn’t bat an eye — and that’s a good thing.
Sainristil looks like he’s played the nickel position forever, going through his routine, shutting down his man and making plays in the backfield before clocking out for the day. It would come as a shock to anyone that was unaware to learn that Sainristil — just a year ago — was lining up solely at wideout for the Wolverines.
The now-corner has made the transition to defense as smooth as possible, something he attributes to just going out there and playing the game he loves.
“I definitely feel like I’m more so playing football than I am just playing defensive back,” Sainristil said Tuesday. “(I’m) just out there having fun, doing my responsibility, doing my one eleventh of the defense is more so what I feel like then I’m out there playing a certain position.”
Sainristil also doesn’t give himself enough credit. The switch to a new position — especially on the opposite side of the ball — at the college level is not a simple task. It takes work, and it takes a special kind of player to do it successfully and excel.
“He’s just an athlete, just a born athlete,” fifth-year linebacker Mike Barrett — who played quarterback in high school and made the transition to linebacker — said. “When you have those kind of athletic skills that can let you do either. I feel like it’s not really a thing a lot of guys can do, but he’s one of those guys who kind of took that road and just embraced it.”
Sainristil proved that athletic prowess over the course of Michigan’s non-conference schedule. He’s already notched six solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, all while remaining consistent as a nickel corner.
The competition may be lower caliber than Sainristil and the Wolverines will see for the remainder of the season, but the kind of plays and athleticism he’s put on display are the types of things that translate as the competition gets harder.
During the transition, Sainristil has looked in a lot of places, but one of his primary role models for success is a player the Wolverine faithful know well: Dax Hill. The now-NFL defensive back played safety and nickel for Michigan and is someone that Sainristil has not only watched plenty, but someone that he has reached out to for advice.
And the resemblance in playstyle is striking enough for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to call it out.
“Sainristil seems like he’s getting there just as quick as Dax Hill was last year on the same kind of pressure package,” Harbaugh said after Saturday’s game.
The pressure package that Harbaugh refers to has Sainristil coming off the edge on a blitz. Each time, Sainristil met the quarterback or carrier with blinding speed, punishing whatever poor soul was holding the ball.
It’s also Sainristil’s favorite part of his new role.
“I love it,” Sainristil said. “If I could do it every play I would, but unfortunately I can’t. But it’s definitely fun, just getting up there in the quarterback’s face or just being right in the run fit as soon as the mesh is happening. It’s very fun and it’s what you wanna do as a nickel.”
Sainristil has a love for contact; an affinity that most receivers don’t typically harbor, but one that benefits a defender’s mindset. He cites that passion for “playing with aggression” as part of his seamless switch to tackling and manning up as a defender.
It’s also what impresses his offense-to-defense crony the most.
“It was surprising coming from receiver to playing defense, just the physicality that he brought,” Barrett said. “But I mean, I could tell he could bring that physicality just by the way he blocked on offense and just the different things he does. I wouldn’t (actually) say it surprised me, but that was one thing that I was really impressed with.”
Sainristil has been impressive with his skills and physicality on defense, a juxtaposition to the expectations he set back in fall camp.
“Games are gonna go along and I’m gonna be put in different situations I’ve never been in simply because I’m on a new side of the ball,” Sainristil said Aug. 23. “So will I ever be 100% comfortable this year? Who’s to say, but you know, I’m gonna play to my best ability at all times.”
So far, Sainristil looks as comfortable as can be. As competition heats up, that poise will be tested, but if Sainristil has proved anything this season it’s this:
He’s ready for whatever new challenge is put in front of him.