When Jalen Mayfield decided to reverse course on his decision to opt out of games after the Big Ten reinstated the fall football season, sophomore wide receiver Mike Sainristil heard the news directly from Mayfield.
“I came back to do this for us,” Sainristil remembers Mayfield texting the team. “I want to continue fighting for you guys and I’m not leaving here until we win a championship.’
Mayfield’s message, according to Sainristil, was much more than just a text. It was a testament to an unselfish familial bond, something that Sainristil isn’t overlooking during his second year in the program.
When the Michigan football team’s punt was blocked on its opening drive against Minnesota, previous iterations of the program would’ve folded. But this year, the Wolverines fought through and ultimately cruised to a 25-point win.
Much of the difference Sainristil has noticed is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the last seven months, Michigan has completely transformed itself. Coaches turned film sessions into Zoom breakdowns, players left Ann Arbor en masse and the strength and conditioning staff developed at-home workout plans while the team’s facilities were shut down.
Through the emotional ups and downs leading up to the Big Ten’s initial cancelation and later reinstatement of the season, the Wolverines still had to rebuild a team that lost its quarterback, four starting offensive linemen and a handful of key defensive contributors.
On Saturday night, Michigan took the field in a moment that seemed improbable just a few short months ago.
“Just so much preparation that was put in this offseason,” Sainristil said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “So much effort, so much of trying to rebuild because we did lose a lot of guys last year, and then when you see (that) Jalen Mayfield came back, stuff like that is really what helped us continue gelling our offense and continuing putting pieces together. It finally felt good to go out there and show what we’ve been working on.”
One unifying factor that helped the Wolverines’ offense through the pandemic was the continuity of the coaching staff. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s staff of offensive assistants is the same as it was in 2019.
The only difference? Second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has come into his own after his unit struggled out of the gate last fall.
“Year 2, (Gattis) knows our players, his players extremely well,” coach Jim Harbaugh said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show Monday. “Being his offense, our offense, he knows it the best and has made improvements to it. Fixed some things and made it better. But I think he’s doing a great job of using all the personnel and the weapons and playing to their strengths, putting guys in positions to play to their strengths. … He’s been great. He’s a tremendous teacher of the game and called a great game.”
The pandemic changed the way most staffers approached a spring without practices. In Gattis’ case, he took the extra time to re-watch every offensive snap from last fall 50 times. Between the good, the bad and the ugly, Gattis’ takeaways allowed him to strengthen the players’ grasp of his up-tempo system.
With so many new players stepping into significant roles, the onset of the pandemic presented an opportunity for the Wolverines to build trust in one another. It was clear they had accomplished just that on Saturday night, when the team’s first-time starting quarterback and a nearly brand new offensive line looked like a veteran unit.
The end result? The best road win to date in the Harbaugh era and the validation of how Sainristil felt when he read Mayfield’s text last month.
“I feel like this team is more united,” Sainristil said. “I could say that coming from year one to year two, just the difference in people’s mindsets.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.