College football: With blue chips and 3-stars, Michigan develops a top defense

College football: With blue chips and 3-stars, Michigan develops a top defense

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 a 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 replace 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 (head 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 gotten faster. The weight room has impacted me on the field,” said Turner, who weighs 180 pounds.

The Wolverines’ Big Ten title and playoff run last year were fueled by 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 been Mike Morris,” he said.

Sainristil was Michigan’s fourth-leading receiver last season, but when the staff wanted to fill Dax Hill’s nickel back role, 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.

Smith is at the confluence of talent identification and Michigan’s player development model.

A four-star prospect from Michigan and close to 300 pounds coming out of high school, Smith badgered his high school coaches for extra time in the weight room.

“It makes me mad sometimes when he lifts,” Colson said. “… I’m like: ‘Why are you even in here with us?’”

TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley said Michigan’s talent is only part of what makes the Wolverines so tough defensively.

“I think the biggest thing is they’re always very sound,” Riley said. “They’re not a group out of position and kind of feast or famine, like some (defences) are. I think they’re well-positioned and play well together.”

Liberty Bowl: KJ Jefferson passed to Rashod Dubinion for a 2-point conversion in the third overtime, and Arkansas (7-6) withstood a second-half rally by Kansas for a 55-53 win in Memphis. The Jayhawks rallied from 25 points down in the second half to force overtime, but a failure on a 2-point conversion pass from Jason Bean to Lawrence Arnold ended a 41/2-hour marathon.

Military Bowl: Riley Leonard ran for two touchdowns and threw for 173 yards. Duke (9-4) wrapped up an impressive first season under Mike Elko with a 30-13 win over Central Florida (9-5) in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md..

Briefly: Former Cal quarterback Jack Plummer confirmed on Twitter that he has transferred to Louisville. The Cardinals recently named Jeff Brohm their head coach. He was Plummer’s head coach for four seasons at Purdue… LSU receiver Kayshon Boutte reconsidered his decision to remain with the Tigers in 2023 and will declare for the NFL draft.


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