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What if…Mike Sainristil had never moved to corner?

“Time. Space. Reality. It is more than a linear path. It is a prism of endless possibilities. Where a single choice can branch into infinite realities and create alternative worlds from the known ones.”

This is part of the introduction to Marvel's What if…?” series on Disney+, the inspiration for an offseason series that ponders a world where things were different in college football and in Ann Arbor in 2023.

Just as the Avengers conquered Thanos and restored half the world's population, Michigan swept all of college football last season.

We will explore worlds where things happened differently. Sometimes the result of a championship is the same, just in different ways. Other realities are much bleaker. Maize n Brew will walk you through these realities and ponder the question: What if…

What if…Mike Sainristil had never moved to corner?

Legends are characterized by making the most difficult decisions to overcome adversity. Sometimes they crumble and fall, but in your timeline, Mike Sainristil made the right decision to become a hero of the 2023 National Championship season. Because the former wide receiver focused on the Michigan motto “The team, the team, the team…” and moved to the defensive side of the ball to play cornerback, which is a big need for the Wolverines in the 2022 season was.

While he put the team above himself, the football gods rewarded Sainristil in ways no fan or coach could have imagined. Sainristil created plays that marked the end of the Jim Harbaugh era in Michigan. In an 11-point, fourth-quarter game against the Buckeyes, he hit a ball right out of the hands of Ohio State tight end Cade Stover. A year later, he sealed the Wolverines' national title win with an interception on Michael Penix Jr. Sainristil was awarded All-American and national champion status and was selected by the Washington Commanders in the second round of the NFL Draft, where he will continue the incredible journey to this point.

During the first three years of his career, Sainristil played 33 games as a wide receiver and developed into a role player on Michigan's roster. In many worlds in the vast cosmos of the infinite timeline, he chose to remain in this position. Here is one of those stories:

In 2021, the Michigan Wolverines triumphantly defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes for the first time in what feels like eons, thanks to a rugged defense led by Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Cade McNamara was the quarterback leader the program had been waiting for, and the Wolverines got their first taste of a win in the Big Ten Championship Game and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

On the offensive side, Ronnie Bell suffered a knee injury in Week 1 that would shake up the wide receiver corps. Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson made big strides, while Mike Sainristil finished fourth on the team with 312 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns in his junior season. With Bell returning in 2022, it looked like Sainristil would return to the second unit, and the coaching staff really liked what they had in Andrel Anthony and some young, incoming freshman receivers. Suddenly, Sainristil found himself at an impasse with a more experienced player losing snaps to underclassmen.

With transfer portal rules relaxing, Sainristil considered his options throughout the offseason. When spring camp began and the coaching staff approached him about moving to defense, he scoffed at the idea and planned to make the NFL as a wide receiver. So he entered the portal and was quickly recruited by the North Carolina Tar Heels. As a Massachusetts native, it was closer to home and he was familiar with the facilities, having had a relationship with the program since high school. The pass-friendly offense, the offseason emergence of quarterback Drake Maye and the lack of depth at wide receiver made it attractive for Sainristil to head to Southeast.

This gave Michigan a little less leeway on corners, but the coaching staff still felt comfortable. DJ Turner and Will Johnson were two electric starters and Gemon Green moved to the slot position instead of playing on the outside like in previous years. However, there was no doubt that in Sainristil the program had lost an almost irreplaceable dressing room presence and a vocal leader. Any injury would also mean that freshmen like Keon Sabb and Zeke Berry or sophomore Ja'Den McBurrows would be thrown into the fire as the trio has little experience.

The 2023 season went as expected in the first 11 weeks. Avoiding a home game against Illinois after Blake Corum's injury, the Wolverines faced their toughest challenge yet. Ohio State in Columbus, a place they hadn't won since 2000.

The Buckeyes took a 20-17 lead at halftime, but without Sainristil there was no defensive leader to rally the troops on the sideline early in the second half. The second half was back and forth between both sides until a crucial 57-yard field goal by Jake Moody was missed with the score at 31:27 in Michigan. Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud went to work, moving the Buckeyes down the field with a chance to take the lead in the redzone. With a pass to Stover and Green a second late, the Buckeyes took a 34-31 lead with less than eight minutes left.

It took one play for Michigan to respond to a 75-yard run by Donovan Edwards to turn the game back in the Wolverines' favor. But Stroud was only four points behind and didn't panic too much when he got the ball out of his hands. He moved methodically through the air down the field and found Emeka Egbuka in the end zone to retake the lead with just over four minutes to play.

Now the philosophy for Michigan's offense had to change. The game was put in the hands of JJ McCarthy rather than Edwards, and with the game on the line in his first start in Columbus, McCarthy was picked off and gave the Buckeyes all the momentum. Ohio State was victorious and Michigan missed a chance to repeat as Big Ten champions and lost a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Fast forward to “The Game” a year later, and Michigan’s secondary looks a lot different than what you see on your timeline. Rod Moore, Quentin Johnson and Makari Paige split time, rotating from the safety positions and slot corner, while Will Johnson and Josh Wallace rotated. The group was once again good enough to dominate the first 11 games of their schedule, but a much improved Ohio State defense awaited them in the season finale.

Due to the increased rotation, Rod Moore was not in his normal spot deep in the secondary. When Kyle McCord dropped back to pass with 25 seconds left, he came under pressure from a heavy pass rush from the Wolverines. He threw it over the middle of the field, but it fell incomplete, just out of Quentin Johnson's reach. On the next play, the Buckeyes got Marvin Harrison Jr. moving and Wallace ended up in coverage. McCord threw up a 50/50 ball and the towering Harrison Jr. came down with the ball, giving the Buckeyes a one-point win in Ann Arbor.

For the second straight year, the Wolverines' path to a national title was thwarted by the Buckeyes. There were no legends for Michigan, and the Harbaugh era was forever tainted with the question of “What if?”


Others in this series:

What if… JJ McCarthy never came to Michigan?

What if…Blake Corum didn't return for his final season?

What if… Xavier Worthy visited Michigan?

Anna Harden

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