When Mike Sainristil, Cornelius Johnson and Giles Jackson arrived on campus for their freshman season, they had no way of knowing they’d each find the end zone this year.
But for the true freshmen, many months of adjustment are beginning to pay off. While bonafide NFL prospects Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black all made preseason headway, the frosh receivers absorbed as much as possible. Remaining patient, they worked closely with first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and assistant wide receivers coach Roy Roundtree to fine-tune everything from their route-running habits to starting stances.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Jackson said. “You have to humble yourself a lot. In high school, everybody knows you’re the guy and you do what you want to do. Here, it’s a reality check. Everybody here is just like you, so you have to grind everyday, pay attention, take the notes, do everything that counts and just keep going.”
Even with the freshman class’ transition period, Gattis’ track record of molding wide receivers into stars at Penn State and Alabama hasn’t changed in Ann Arbor. Collins has established himself as one of the Big Ten’s premiere playmakers, while sophomore slot-man Ronnie Bell has taken a leap forward after last season’s promising freshman campaign.
Now, the next guys up are Sainristil, Johnson and Jackson. With the Wolverines bracing to lose at least one wideout to the NFL Draft, developing the current freshmen builds a foundation for expanded roles next season.
But the dividends are even more immediate than that. Giles hauled in his first touchdown against Rutgers and took the opening kickoff to the house against Maryland, Sainristil broke a tackle in the red zone to reach pay dirt against Notre Dame and Johnson found himself wide open along the sideline for a 39-yard score against Michigan State after a executing a run-pass option fake to perfection.
Other pass-catchers in the class include George Johnson III, a three-star wideout from Florida, and Erick All, a four-star tight end from Ohio.
“Sometimes, me, Mike, (Cornelius Johnson), George, we’ll all talk about how next year, as time goes on, we’ll be the big receivers on campus,” Jackson said. “Just got to keep grinding, one day we’ll get to it.”
The frosh receivers may not be ready to perform at the highest level, but this year’s development has been instrumental. Through working directly with Gattis and learning from the talent ahead of them on the depth chart, each has taken noticeable strides forward. Though their touchdown receptions have all come in the second half of blowout wins, the true value of crossing the goal line for the first time lies in confidence.
Jackson and Sainristil, in particular, seem to possess the raw skill set Gattis is looking to mold for his “speed in space” offense. Their highly-touted speed and agility made them tough to bring down in high school, and they’ve combined for 10 catches, 137 yards and a touchdown apiece so far this season. With each of them getting more comfortable on the field, Gattis has added more to their plate, with Jackson’s 21-yard jet sweep against the Spartans standing out as the most recent example.
“We both use that (speed) to our advantage in our offense,” Jackson said. “Just like the swings and bubbles, using our speed, trying to beat everybody out.”
With only two games remaining in the regular season, the group dreaming of stardom has put itself in a position to succeed going forward.