SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The man in the middle of No. 2 Michigan's defense is Mazi Smith, a nose tackle with Herculean strength who arrived on campus as a highly touted prospect and is likely to leave as an high-round NFL draft pick.
Maybe the most valuable player in the Wolverines' secondary is former three-star recruit Mike Sainristil, who moved from wide receiver to defensive back this year to fill a hole left by a first-rounder.
Michigan brings the third-ranked defense in the country into its College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 3 TCU at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. The unit is an interesting mix of developmental success stories and blue-chip recruits who reached their potential.
“You always want to recruit the best players you can, but I also think fit and qualities that you think can develop — not everybody has developed in high school at the same rate,” co-defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. “The goal is that your players play like five-stars when they’re in college, regardless of how they played in high school. I think we got a bunch of guys that play like they were higher recruited than they were and it’s a credit to (director of strength and conditioning) Ben Herbert and (coach) Jim Harbaugh.”
Among Michigan's 16 top tacklers this season, eight were three-star recruits, according to 247 Sports' composite rankings. They include defensive end Mike Morris, who leads the team in sacks (7.5) despite missing two games with an injury, and cornerback D.J. Turner.
Morris and Turner were slow-burn players, hardly playing their first two years at Michigan before becoming valuable second-teamers and occasional starters last year.
“I don't weigh a lot, but I came in really skinny, then put on weight. My speed has definitely gotten faster. The weight room has really impacted me on the field,” the 180-pound Turner said.
The Wolverines' Big Ten title and playoff run last year were fueled by star edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson, who went No. 2 overall in the draft to Detroit, and David Ojabo, selected in the second round by Baltimore.
Morris, who came to Michigan as a rangy, 255-pound defensive end and is now listed at 292, said he felt some pressure to replicate the performances of Hutchinson and Ojabo.
“But I had to realize I'm not them. I'm Mike Morris. So I have be Mike Morris,” he said.
Minter is in his first season at Michigan, but worked for Jim Harbaugh's brother, John, with the Baltimore Ravens. He said Jim Harbaugh's commitment to tough, physical practices is a key component to Michigan's player development.
“I think to get good at football, you have to play football,” Minter said. “You have to practice football. So we practice really hard in the spring and fall, when it’s not necessarily a game on the line that week. We get a lot of reps. Our guys are always getting better at football.”
Sainristil was Michigan's fourth-leading receiver last season, but when the staff was looking to fill the versatile nickelback role that Dax Hill played so well last season, they turned to the senior and found a gem.
“We knew it was going to work," Turner said. "He played DB in high school. He would always joke around with us, trying to be a DB. We were like, ‘You might as well just come over.’”
Michigan doesn't quite recruit at the level of Georgia and Ohio State, but Harbaugh does land his fair share of top recruits.
Linebacker Junior Colson, the team's top tackler, was a four-star recruit and a top-100-type player out of high school. Freshman cornerback Will Johnson was a five-star recruit in the 2022 class. His combination of talent, work ethic and confidence allowed him to work his way into the starting lineup and emerge as Michigan's best cover corner.
“Just being able to understand that I don’t need him to win the game on every play,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said. “I need you just to let the game come to you. Keep your poise and let’s build on it.”
Johnson is graded the ninth-best cornerback in pass coverage in the nation this season by Pro Football Focus.
Smith is at the the confluence of talent identification and Michigan's player development model.
A four-star prospect from the state of Michigan, and close to 300 pounds coming out of high school, Smith said he would badger his high school coaches for extra time in the weight room.
At Michigan, his feats of strength and agility for his size (6-foot-3, 337 pounds) are unmatched.
“It actually makes me mad sometimes when he lifts,” Colson said. “I'll just be watching, I'm like: ‘Why are you even in here with us?’"
TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley said the Michigan's talent is obvious, but it is only part of what makes them so tough defensively.
"I think the biggest thing is they’re just always very sound," Riley said. “They’re not a group that’s out of position and kind of feast or famine, like some (defenses) are. I just think they’re well-positioned and play well together.”
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