Ann Arbor — Michigan hasn’t quite wrapped up spring practice, but the public-viewing portion has concluded and there are a few takeaways that have emerged in terms of players to keep an eye on.
Several key skill position players have been out this spring because of injury and that has given opportunities for other players, including some younger players who may have risen to the top even with all the competition available. Here’s a look at five players to watch heading into the fall:
Mike Sainristil, WR
The 5-foot-10, 179-pound early enrollee freshman turned heads the moment he arrived during winter conditioning and then spring practice. Even Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh started chirping about Sainristil at the start of spring practice, praising his speed, his fearlessness blocking, and how quickly he has picked up the offense.
Sainistril has benefited from extra reps with receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins out with injuries. One of the quarterbacks after the spring “game” Saturday said Tarik Black had missed some time because of a hamstring injury. But Sainistril has the kind of talent that would have been evident had the receivers all been full strength. Special-teams coordinator Chris Partridge said last week Sainristil will challenge to return punts, as well.
Quarterback Shea Patterson made clear after the spring game that Sainristil is someone he identified early as a contributor this fall: “I knew he was going to be legit when I started throwing with him as soon as he got in here before spring ball started and during workouts,” Patterson said. “Great athlete. Speed like no other, and he’s football savvy as well. He’s made numerous plays throughout the spring.”
Ronnie Bell, WR
New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is preaching speed in space and, again, with the veteran receivers out, the younger players have stepped up. That includes rising sophomore Ronnie Bell, who is 6-foot, 182 pounds and last season had eight catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. He is extremely athletic and quick, and like Sainristil, had some highlight moments during the spring game. He currently is the main returner, and Partridge said he is explosive with great ball skills and believes he will be a “dynamic weapon.”
He is now in an offense that will feed and use his skill set. Interestingly, one of the players after the game Saturday checked a reporter who made it sound like Bell was a newcomer in a sense. He corrected the reporter and essentially said, not one of the Michigan players has slept on him because they saw what he could do a year ago.
Aidan Hutchinson, DL
Hutchinson returns from an impressive freshman season bigger and badder. He’s 6-6, 268 pounds and said he added about 10 pounds as he continues his efforts to take over at defensive end.
He’s also showing some moxie, and that was evident after the spring “game” when he didn’t mince words while describing how betrayed he felt with the departure of his position coach, Greg Mattison, to arch-rival Ohio State, and also when discussing what he perceives as a lack of respect for the defensive line heading into this season. After all, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are gone, along with Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall, but Hutchinson believes the next wave of linemen that will be on display will be just fine.
He said he’s 100 percent positive about that. “Why? Our chemistry is unparalleled. This group of guys, the room we’ve got, I think no other room compares to it in the country.”
Ambry Thomas, DB
Thomas knows he’s fast and is pretty sure he’s right up there among the fastest in the country, but speed — he clarified he wasn’t talking straight line speed, but game speed — doesn’t always translate to sound play at cornerback. It’s merely an element of it, and he has spent the spring working on developing his entire game since he more than likely will step in to replace David Long.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown said he came into spring practice thinking the secondary would be an issue and was quickly relieved on many counts, including seeing the way Thomas had responded to a bigger role. Thomas said recently he’s focused improving his play at cornerback and “making plays on an island.” He said he wants to make plays, and that, of course, means interceptions — imagine what his speed could look like with the ball in his hands (think kickoff return at Notre Dame last fall).
Andrew Stueber/Jalen Mayfield, OL
This is one of the compelling competitions of the spring that will extend into fall camp, as the two challenge for the starting job at right tackle. With four of five returning starters, that’s the only spot on the offensive line that has yet to be claimed.
Position coach Ed Warinner said the two alternate starting and playing primarily with the first team each practice. Stueber started in Saturday’s spring “game,” but Mayfield got his share of key reps. Still, that’s not where the emphasis should be. Mayfield will be a redshirt freshman with a load of potential after being talked up last fall by Warinner. Stueber is a redshirt sophomore who made two important starts last season at Ohio State and in the bowl game. Both are talented, but Mayfield was getting chatted up last year as a potential at either tackle spot, so he clearly has some talent that the coaches want to explore.