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J.J. McCarthy shares how Jim Harbaugh welcomes his creativity

“He’s a J.J. as well.”

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The collegiate career of five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy is just getting started, but he’s already confident and eager to get in games as much as possible.

“I feel like I can run the ball very well, I feel like I can throw the ball very well. But the thing that I bring the most is I want to win as bad as anyone out there, or more,” McCarthy told the media on Tuesday. “My competitiveness as a competitor is huge. I believe that’s my number one attribute to my game. No matter what it is, I just want to make the right reads for the team and win. That’s it.”

McCarthy might be a freshman, but his bond with head coach Jim Harbaugh has been strong for over a couple years. Harbaugh let McCarthy know back then that he sees some of himself in his game.

“He was, which was really special to me — he was the one to offer me the scholarship. He was already trying to make personal connections with each other. He’s a J.J. as well. He was just talking about the similar playing styles from when he was playing and me when I’m playing. It was really cool making the personal connection right away, for sure.”

McCarthy is 6-foot-3, Harbaugh is 6-foot-3. Harbaugh was a scrambling quarterback, McCarthy definitely has some wheels. Harbaugh, at his peak as a quarterback at Michigan, and during his NFL career, could really scoot in effortless fashion. In fact, Harbaugh is currently 13th all-time in NFL rushing yards by a quarterback with 2,787.

McCarthy has unique abilities and instincts, the most glaring example being a throw across the field after escaping pressure. That Mahomes-like throw (video below) isn’t something any coach would advise a player to try, but McCarthy had the confidence to deliver a strike that went for a 69-yard touchdown.

Harbaugh’s been giving McCarthy a long leash and the freedom to play to his strengths.

“He’s been awesome with that. When you have a coach that just lets you play and lets you do what you do, it opens up so many doors for you and allows you to be creative out there,” McCarthy said. “You see a guy like Patrick Mahomes, a lot of guys can’t coach what he does. What he brings to the team is something special, and one day I hope I can get to his point. It’s really awesome to know that a coach is gonna let me play and not confine me into a system and kinda limit my capabilities.”

“I don’t ever want to make him a victim of overcoaching,” Harbaugh said last month. “The throwing back—running to your right and throwing back to your left, he’s got that in him. He’s got that creativity in him. I’m not going to coach that out of him.”

While Harbaugh isn’t going to coach that out of McCarthy, Michigan’s narrowed down what’s acceptable creativity and what is overwhelmingly dangerous. Even so, those conversations are few and far between, Harbaugh’s letting him play and learn from his time on task. “I’ve definitely had my learning experiences and what I can get away with,” McCarthy said. “They’ve kind of fine-tuned it down and that’s something I’ve really needed — so on situations where I need to play, he’s not putting that thought into my head, like ‘oh, I can’t do this.’ He’s been approaching it like awesome, awesome.”

Harbaugh has said that he wants to get J.J. in there as much as possible, as he’s felt there were years in the past where he wished he was able to get the backup more snaps. Not only has McCarthy received a steady amount of opportunities this season, some have came in important spots on the road against Wisconsin and Nebraska.

“It’s been really cool. I’m really appreciative of the coaches giving me meaningful experiences in there in big time moments,” McCarthy said. “It was really awesome to get that under my belt so early.”

McCarthy’s gone 9-of-14 for 178 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with 17 yards rushing and 1 score. McCarthy’s opportunities will keep coming the rest of the way no matter how well starting quarterback Cade McNamara does, Harbaugh wants to have option No. 2 ready to go at a moments notice, and he feels experience is paramount for the true freshman.

“Cade played really well,” Harbaugh said after Michigan’s 32-29 win over Nebraska. “One of his best games, if not his best game. Had a heck of a game. As far as J.J., definitely want to keep playing J.J. as much as possible. I look back on some other years and ask if we got the backup enough reps for when we really needed him.”

Michigan will have a bye on Saturday and will pick action back up on Oct. 23 at Michigan Stadium against the Northwestern Wildcats.