Niyo: Emerging Mike Sainristil gives Michigan fans a glimpse of the future

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Nearly a year after he committed to play for Michigan, freshman slot receiver Mike Sainristil still hears the recruiting pitches occasionally. Only now they come from within his own team.

Sainristil was targeted by Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and secondary coach Mike Zordich as a cornerback coming out of the Boston suburbs, and his high school coach, Theluxon Pierre, was one of Brown’s former players at UMass.

Mike Sainristil

But Sainristil had his mind set on playing offense in college, and once head coach Jim Harbaugh agreed, it was settled … mostly.

“Coach Z, every now and then, will ask me, ‘When are you coming to this side? Come to the dark side,’” Sainristil laughed Monday, less than 48 hours after his breakout performance in Michigan’s 45-14 rout of then-No. 8 Notre Dame in Ann Arbor.

Someday, maybe. But now that the light is starting to come on for Sainristil a couple months into his freshman season, everyone’s eager to see just what he can do in his current role.

The Notre Dame game certainly provided an intriguing glimpse, as the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder stepped in for an injured Ronnie Bell — Michigan’s leading receiver this season — and finished with three receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown in wet-and-windy conditions that limited the Wolverines to just eight completions all night.

“Mike really made the most of his opportunities, no question,” Harbaugh said. “Those three catches made a big impact.”

Sainristil’s first catch actually was Michigan’s first completed pass early in the second quarter. It was good for a 13-yard gain after Shea Patterson scrambled out of the pocket on third-and-7 from the Irish 37. Three plays later, Zach Charbonnet scored on a goal-line carry to make it a 17-0 lead for the Wolverines.

The freshman’s second reception came on a defensive bust by the Irish early in the fourth quarter. Sanristil took advantage, picking up 34 yards to set up Patterson’s touchdown pass to Nico Collins on the next play, effectively turning the game into a rout.

Then for good measure, after Dylan McCaffrey replaced Patterson in the fourth quarter, Sanristil handled a bullet from Michigan’s backup quarterback, spun off a hit from cornerback Troy Pride and stepped out of the grasp of another defender.

“Then I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m still up,’” Sainristil said. “I just thought to myself, ‘The end zone’s right there. Go score.’”

Mike Sainristil was one of the least-heralded recruits in Michigan’s 2019 class.

He did, juking one last Irish cornerback and then bolting in for the game’s final score.

“It was a big relief,” said Sainristil, who had just one catch for eight yards prior to Saturday. “I just wanted to get in the end zone for the first time.”

His teammates wanted it, too. Sainristil, who was born in Haiti and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was seven months old, is “one of everybody’s favorite guys,” according to Harbaugh. And you could see that in the way they mobbed him after he scored, junior running back Tru Wilson making sure he picked up the football that’d come loose in the celebration, handing it back to the freshman as a souvenir.

“It’s just his personality, his charisma,” defensive end Luiji Vijain said Monday. “He’s just a happy guy, whenever you’re around him. He brings life.”

Sainristil was one of the least-heralded recruits in Michigan’s 2019 class, a three-star prospect who’d originally committed to Virginia Tech. But after flipping to UM, he made a quick impression on the coaches as an early enrollee last winter.

And in spring practice, with Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones out becaue of injuries, perhaps no player was generating more hype. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis tweeted a video clip of Sainristil mastering a route-running concept in practice. Harbaugh touted him as a likely starter on his podcast. Teammates noted his quick feet and change-of-direction ability that seemed tailor-made for Michigan’s new spread offense.

But then came fall camp, and a reality check for Sainristil, who suddenly found himself overshadowed by more-experienced teammates.

“When they came back, they made the most of their opportunities,” he said. “Those guys that were here, they have game experience. Nico, Donovan, Ronnie — they’ve all played in games and they’ve all been put in those situations already.”

Sainristil admits he let it affect him, at times, particularly with dropped passes in practice in August and September.

“I think that just came from a lack of focus,” he said. “I kinda didn’t like the position I was in. But I just had to put that to the side and do what I can to help this team succeed.”

That meant extra time with the “Jugs” machine before or after practice. It meant showing up at Schembechler Hall for 6:15 a.m. “opportunity practices” with some of the other freshman and players buried on the depth chart.

“I really have to work to get my playing time,” said Sainristil, who also credits grad assistant Roy Roundtree with helping him along the way. “That’s just a life lesson: Nothing’s given.”

Still, the patience was rewarded, just like Monday’s praise was earned. And with Bell’s status uncertain for now — Harbaugh didn’t offer an injury update at his weekly press conference — there might be more in store for Sainristil.

“I’ve really seen a lot of growth from Mikey the last four weeks,” Harbaugh said. “Especially in practice, he’s really gained a lot of confidence in catching the football. He’s always been really good (with his) route running. But he went through a little spell there where he wasn’t catching the ball great, and now his confidence is back and surging.”

Twitter: @johnniyo