Three Michigan football defensive players poised for a breakout year

Michigan football begins its season next Saturday, Sept. 3 against Colorado State for the home opener.

The Wolverines are hoping for a repeat of the magical 2021 season. The maize and blue not only defeated their arch-rival Ohio State 42-27 last year, but Michigan also reigned supreme over the Big Ten after it beat Iowa in the Big Ten Title game. The Wolverines made their first College Football Playoff appearance but faltered against the eventual champion, Georgia.

While Michigan is ranked No. 6 in the Coaches Poll and No. 8 in the AP Poll, the Wolverines aren’t a popular pick to repeat as Big Ten champions. According to the national media, Ohio State is going to take back over the Big Ten and it could even make noise in the CFP if projections ring true.

A big reason why Michigan isn’t being picked to repeat in 2022 is due to it losing Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Josh Ross, Dax Hill, and Brad Hawkins on the defensive side of the ball. But like every year — look back at Ojabo last season — players come out of thin air to become huge playmakers.

A few weeks ago I wrote about three players on the offensive side of the ball that would have a breakout season.

Now I’m going to pick three players on the defensive side of the ball that are poised to have a breakout 2022 campaign.


Eight Michigan football 2022 predictions we’re certain of

Braiden McGregor

Photo: Isaiah Hole

The former four-star Port Huron Northern (Michigan) star has been biding his time for two seasons. Now as a junior, it’s McGregor’s time to shine on the new-look Michigan defense.

McGregor is listed as 6-foot-6 and 261-pounds and he sure looks the part of being the next feared Wolverine on the defensive line. Not to say that he will have the same production as Chase Winovich, Ojabo, or Hutchinson this season, but I really think that McGregor is going to have a prominent role this season. In high school, he set the school record with 227 tackles for his career, so we know he can wrap up the ball carrier at a high level.

He did not see any game action in 2020, and in 2021, McGregor recorded five total tackles while he appeared in nine games on defense and special teams.

It seems that Michigan will start out the year with Taylor Upshaw and Mike Morris getting the first grabs at edge. But expect the likes of Jaylen Harrell, McGregor, and Eyabi Anoma — the new grad transfer — to all see significant playing time. The question will be, who takes advantage?

My vote is McGregor.

Mike Sainristil

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Sainristil was just announced as a captain on Thursday which shows that he is an incredible leader, but I expect the senior to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball in 2022.

The 5-foot-10 speedster has played wide receiver all three years in Ann Arbor, but during spring ball, we heard that Michigan was trying out Sainristil on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, in high school, Sainristil played cornerback and on his recruiting profile on 247Sports he is listed as a corner.

Michigan lost Vincent Gray from the 2021 team, but Michigan does return both Gemon Green and DJ Turner. The Wolverines also brought in five-star freshman Will Johnson, who is about guaranteed to have a good-sized role in 2022.

But as we know, college football has become a pass-happy league, so a team can never have enough good corners on a roster. In the spring, Jim Harbaugh said that Sainristil was playing some nickel, but the head coach projected that Sainristil would play both ways in 2022.

During Big Ten Media Days, DJ Turner was asked for a player that has turned heads in practice, or that would have a breakout season. Turner didn’t hesitate when he said Sainristil’s name.

“I said Mike Sainristil moving on the defense,” said Turner on Tuesday. “He will make noise this year. I’m confident about that. So I said Mike. I mean, he played DB in high school. And I mean, he always jokes around with me that he’s a DB but I mean, it didn’t surprise me at all. He got in there. He just got comfortable. I mean, the hardest part for him was just getting the playbook. I mean, he got it now. So now just getting comfortable with and going into the season. It didn’t surprise anybody though. No, that’s why we did. It was like now you can do it.”

I believe that Sainristil will slot in at starting nickel when 2022 opens up, and he will be an even bigger playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.

Rayshaun Benny

This one is kind of a shot in the dark because Michigan will rotate at least four guys on the interior line.

The Wolverines lost both Christopher Hinton and Donovan Jeter from the 2021 team, but Michigan retained Mazi Smith — who has had an exceptional camp.

The Wolverines are going to be looking for someone that can play alongside Smith that can clog the lane. Michigan will be looking at Benny, freshmen Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant, but we can expect Kris Jenkins to get the starting nod.

Michigan has high expectations for both Smith and Jenkins, but the Wolverines need depth behind them. And that is where I look at Benny. coming into play, a really, really good depth piece.

Benny, a sophomore, was a four-star recruit and he appeared in three games last season. The biggest reason that I believe Benny will have a ‘breakout’ year is due to watching him play in the spring game. Benny was extremely active, clogged the lane, and didn’t allow anything past him. If Michigan can get the same production out of Benny on a daily basis then the Wolverines are in really good hands going forward.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire