clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The parallel between Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and J.J. McCarthy

“He reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh.”

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When the Michigan Wolverines toppled Iowa 27-14 last season, head coach Jim Harbaugh offered uniquely high praise for his first-year starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

“He’s better than me — but I mean, he reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh,” the former quarterback elaborated further when discussing McCarthy’s scrambling ability to extend plays.

“Off he goes, he drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it, or throws it, to an open guy. Man, I love it, I just love it.”

Some took it as hyperbolic, but this description, in particular, reminded me of Harbaugh in 1985 against Ohio State.

Jim Harbaugh is widely regarded as the best quarterback in the history of the program.

During his time at Michigan, Harbaugh was a record-setting gunslinger and personified the popularized phrase, “Got that dawg in him.” In his first year as a starter, Harbaugh set program records for passing yards (1,976) and touchdowns (18) while guiding the Wolverines to a 10-1-1 record and the No. 2 final ranking in both polls.

In 1986, Harbaugh rebroke his single-season passing record (2,729) and established a new career record for passing yards (5,449). Despite his pedestrian 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, Harbaugh’s importance on an 11-2 team earned him an invitation to New York where he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

McCarthy isn’t just a “young Jimmy Harbaugh” because of his playing style and intoxicating swagger — his adjusted numbers almost line up perfectly with Harbaugh’s. Let’s take the statistics from Harbaugh’s final two seasons at Michigan and compare them next to McCarthy’s first year as a starting quarterback.

Junior Harbaugh: 145/227 (63.9%), 1,976 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions

Senior Harbaugh: 180/277 (65%), 2,729 yards, 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

Sophomore McCarthy: 208/322 (64.6%), 2,719 yards, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions.

At first glance, McCarthy is picking up right where Harbaugh left off by combining the best pieces from Harbaugh’s junior and senior years. While the numbers are eerily similar, McCarthy is closer to junior-year Harbaugh when historical inflation is accounted for because 2,729 yards in 1985 are not the same as 2,719 yards in 2022.

However, 1,976 yards in 1986 are closer to 2,719 yards in 2022. So what will it take for McCarthy to unofficially carry on the legacy of a Michigan legend or take it to another level?

How about breaking records as Harbaugh did during his senior year? The current single-season records for the Wolverines anemically stand at 3,331 yards and 25 touchdowns. Even in a conservative offense, McCarthy should challenge both of those in 2023.

How about guiding this team to a third-straight College Football Playoff? The Michigan roster returns the third-most talent in the Power Five and the most experience of any national title contender. This is not only doable, but expected.

How about receiving Heisman Trophy votes? This is a long shot, especially with how this Michigan team is built to operate, but not impossible. Media members — including yours truly — would love to push the narrative of a Michigan quarterback under Harbaugh’s tutelage methodically guiding his team to the playoff.

How about winning a national championship? This is the end game. While Harbaugh set records and became a fan favorite, he never achieved his ultimate goal in Ann Arbor. If McCarthy wins a national championship and sets a few records along the way, he won’t just be the next iteration of Jim Harbaugh; he will be the first iteration of J.J. McCarthy, the best quarterback in the history of the program.

It’s only fitting that Harbaugh finally reaches the pinnacle of the sport through a player so similar to himself. I always knew one of those “Js” in J.J. McCarthy had to stand for Jim.