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How J.J. McCarthy’s speed impacts Michigan’s offense

McCarthy can inflict damage on a defense in many ways.

Colorado State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is really fast.

The sophomore rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown in Michigan’s 51-7 win over Colorado State on Saturday, while also going 4-for-4 throwing the ball for 30 yards. He has speed, and he has moves.

McCarthy rushed for 124 and two touchdowns as a freshman and has consistently displayed game-changing abilities as a runner not only in college, but in high school as well.

Opposing defenses have to take into account that McCarthy is a threat to run at all times. Any down or distance, McCarthy is a threat to tuck the ball and take off. This will also help Michigan succeed with the read-option.

  • Is McCarthy keeping it?
  • Is he handing it to Corum or Edwards?
  • Is this a play-action pass instead?

Defenders will be asking lots of questions in the seconds before the ball is snapped.

“I think he definitely pulls defenders,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday. “They have to know where he is. I mean, our defensive coaches are the same way. There needs to be a plan when a quarterback can run in the four-fives, and that gets to be faster than linebackers. So, you’ve gotta have a plan to contain that. You can definitely see even if he’s carrying out a fake somebody’s paying attention.”

McCarthy can even impact the ability of a defense to play man-coverage. A tactic that is often utilized against mobile quarterbacks is to play more zone coverage, so the secondary and linebackers don’t all have their backs to the QB like they would in man coverage. And if a team does opt for man-coverage, they’d be wise to put a linebacker spy on McCarthy.

There are so many variables and nuances a defense has to take into account when McCarthy steps foot onto the field. Last month Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter talked about Michigan’s quarterbacks and how Cade McNamara and McCarthy present different challenges for the unit.

“We talk to our edge guys about which ones in there, sort of how to rush different verse those type of quarterbacks. It’s great work in that regard of having to one, recognize some teams might play two quarterbacks where you gotta recognize how we rush one guy a certain way,” Minter said. “One guy you might not mind if he gets out, one guy you definitely want to keep him in the pocket.”

McCarthy out of the pocket= danger for a defense.

If McCarthy is able to buy extra time out of the pocket, the odds of Michigan having a positive play passing or running the ball increases greatly.

“He’s got that electric type of ability when he’s running with the football,” Harbaugh said on Saturday. “I thought he acquitted himself really well.”

Harbaugh called McCarthy “calm, cool, collected” and feels the game is slowing down around him.

“Calmly just going through your reads, looking for the downfield throw but not gonna fight the dropping defenders, check it down. He did that very effectively a couple times today.”

As good as McCarthy is running the ball, there’s still things he can improve on. Quarterbacks can’t afford to take too many big hits throughout a season, and Harbaugh would like to see McCarthy “get down a little more”.

“It’s something to keep improving. Once he gets the first down, get down. I also understand that as a quarterback, you’d like to get some kind of contact early when you’re out there. Really, why I try to simulate hitting him with the pads and the front, the back, the helmet a little bit — just because it’s always good to get the butterflies out, just blocking somebody or getting hit or running. It helps get the butterflies out I’ve found. Everybody’s a little different.”

McCarthy will have to balance toughness with safety moving forward. Still, that area of improvement has nothing to do with how exceptional of a runner he is and how he can impact the game with his feet.

If McCarthy can continue to ascend as a passer while having top-flight speed, the sky is the limit for him and the Michigan offense.

McCarthy will be making his first career start when Michigan plays Hawaii this Saturday at 8 p.m. According to DraftKings, Michigan is a 51-point favorite. All odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.

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