Elite 11 Lead Quarterback Instructor and former NFL signal-caller Craig Nall was on hand in Nashville for the event last week, which saw Michigan Wolverines five-star commit J.J. McCarthy competing against some of the best arm talent in the country.
Nall spoke to Maize n Brew earlier this week to give his take on the performance and what he saw from a player that appears to have a bright future in college.
One of the things that shocked Nall the most was how quickly McCarthy adapted to coaching. The Elite 11 instructor cited an instance during a drill where the 17-year-old Michigan commit had to tinker with his footwork in his five-step drop while throwing seam routes.
Nall saw that McCarthy was just barely off the mark on his deep balls, as receivers were not able to catch the ball in stride. Nall pointed out a weight distribution flaw in his steps during dropbacks and just like that, McCarthy’s deep ball started to improve.
“I don’t often have the ability to make an immediate improvement like that,” said Nall. “Sometimes I just need you to feel what I’m seeing and if I can get you to feel what I’m seeing, then I have done my job. I think he can probably clean up his footwork just a bit in terms of like more distinct steps, but the base balance load and all of those principles that we teach, he checks all those boxes.”
Those aren’t all the boxes he checked, because McCarthy is capable of doing much more on the field. Nall shared his thoughts on the Michigan commit with Maize n Brew before the Elite 11 competition.
“My notes on him: sudden stroke, clean and efficient, make tight-window throws, anticipates well for first and second window completions, can scramble to extend plays if needed, solid footwork keeps him on time, utilizes the slide-step drop often (which I think is a plus), and he is a bit of a risk-taker by throwing several attempts late over the middle,” Nall said.
Before the Elite 11 Finals, Nall said that he had McCarthy ranked as the No. 10 quarterback coming into Nashville. He also mentioned that he and other Elite 11 coaches had to base most of their pre-Elite 11 Finals rankings on highlight tapes, essays, questionnaires and pro say scripts because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the shutdown of the Elite 11 regional competitions where first impressions are generally made. So, there was a lot for Nall to learn about several of the student-athletes heading into the finals, McCarthy being one of them.
Nall says he is not the best at making quarterback comparisons, but did have a few names that came to mind when asked who McCarthy compares to.
“Maybe kind of like a Drew Lock or Josh Rosen,” he said. “Mechanically very good. I think his leadership skills are going to shine once he gets the opportunity to be ‘the dude’. He talked about in his essay how he broke his thumb the week of the state championship. Against doctor’s orders, he went out and played anyway and I think they won the game based on his play.
“On the field, kind of one of those types of guys, he’s kind of built like (Aaron) Rodgers. Once he gets into a weight program he will probably put on another 10-15 pounds. He might get up to 215 (pound) at the top of his career. That’s a good NFL size. That’s right about where Rodgers is, that is where (Brett) Favre was.”
Although all of the competitors at the Elite 11 Finals will draw comparisons to star college and NFL players like these, they still have a long way to go in their developmental journey. Nall mentioned that Trent Dilfer (who is the head coach at Elite 11) sat down with all of the young quarterbacks and shared a similar message.
Nall clarified why that was the case.
“They just don’t know what they don’t know yet. We see at this level and this stage in their life, these kids are exceptional,” he said.
Despite the exceptional talent across the board at the Elite 11 Finals, several recruiting sites and the coaches themselves create their rankings for the players. Nall said that people shouldn’t put much faith in what these outside scouts have to say, because they are not involved in all of the intricate conversations and film sessions that he and other coaches get to be a part of.
“Everyone who is putting out their rankings, they don’t see what I see in those meetings. Is someone is front row, asking questions, and commenting when I ask a question? Or are they sitting in the back looking down, playing on their phones, and not paying attention? We did have that, and that goes into our evaluation. So (these other outlets) base their rankings simply on the field,” Nall said.
So how exactly do the coaches grade these athletes once all of the drills and meetings are over? Nall described how the process goes saying that it is, “50 percent is based on the film, but the other 50 percent is based on the engagement, the interactions, the on-field performance, all those types of things. So it’s not just based on football.”
Nall admitted that part of the on-field performance this season was skewed because of the lack of 7-on-7 drills due to social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lead quarterback instructor explained that guys that have walked away with the Elite 11 MVP like Justin Fields, Tua Tagovailoa, and Shea Patterson weren’t necessarily that high during drill work but rather earned the award after dominating in the 7-on-7 tournament. Fields threw 17 touchdowns and no interceptions, and Patterson won a game in quadruple overtime in an elimination match and later marched on to the championship. Moments and stats like that were severely missed in this year’s competition because Nall couldn’t see, “how some of these guys grab, scratch, claw, fight, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get to (the championship game).”
Even with the absence of arguably the most important drill, the rankings still have to come for the Elite 11 services and Nall told Maize N’ Brew that McCarthy was “definitely a Top-10 performer... Probably around six or seven.” That means his performance in drills, attitude and his overall charisma helped him jump four spots in Nall’s eyes from before the event to after the competition was over.
Nall on McCarthy vs. OSU five-star commit Kyle McCord: “It’s a really tough decision”
Michigan might be getting its best quarterback recruit of the Harbaugh era in McCarthy, but Ohio State continues to bring in elite talent and has an elite passer of their own coming in 2021 in Kyle McCord.
Both quarterbacks in the 2021 class are five-star recruits and when two top talents like McCord and McCarthy are heading to opposite schools in one of the biggest rivalries in sports, it’s hard not to compare the two.
But they could not be more opposite in terms of their off-the-field personalities according to Nall.
“McCarthy’s got an infectious personality,” he said. “He’s just got a huge smile on his face. (McCarthy’s) got energy, he’s got the juice. He wants to be there. He is trying to lead by example, but he is also vocal and very positive. I hope for all of the best for the kid because he seems very genuine and pure.”
Meanwhile, McCarthy’s counterpart and future rival McCord had a much different approach to the drills at the Elite 11, and it stuck out Nall and others during the competition.
“Personality-wise, McCord is a little bit different, He was more serious and kind of focused,” he said. “He was there to win. Not saying J.J. didn’t come in with expectations, you know? But you can just kind of tell a seriousness about an athlete, the pace at which they play, (McCord) wasn’t there to joke around. Caleb Williams, kind of the same way. Those guys were kind of really focused on winning.”
“We had them for like five or six days, so there was a lot more of the soul building stuff that goes into the Elite 11 and The Opening and all that stuff. We asked Justin Fields (the 2017 Elite 11 MVP), ‘Did a lot of that stuff resonate with you?’ and he was like, ‘Honestly coach, I thought it was great, but I was focused on winning and beating the competition. That’s what I was about.’ That’s kind of how Caleb (Williams) approached it and that’s how I view McCord. Not that J.J.’s not, it’s just different personality-wise. J.J.’s a little more bubbly, and open, and more dialogue, where Kyle’s more focused, and quiet, and just doing his deal. If (McCord) didn’t get top he was pissed. So you can kind of see that building and motivating (Kyle). You have got to have that motivation. It’s got to come from within.”
“Physically, I thought (McCord) threw the ball well during the times I saw him on the field. We were impressed with what we saw on tape translating to the field. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what their arm strength is, are they 6-foot-4 or is it more like 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 with cleats on? (McCord) verified what I saw on tape and I thought he was a stud, right there probably in the top three for me.”
While the Buckeye commit was certainly impressive at the Elite 11 competition, McCarthy also performed strongly in Nashville last week and excited Nall on several different occasions.
“I guess by (default) in my ranking, I would probably say yes. They are both great kids, you know? What would be the right fit for my locker room? (That) would maybe be a deciding factor, but I think they both have very high ceilings, and hopefully play early in their college careers,” Nall said.
As mentioned before by the Elite 11 coach, both of these quarterbacks still have years of training ahead of them. McCarthy is transferring to one of the top high school programs in the country at IMG Academy. Nall praised McCarthy’s private coach Greg Holcomb, who he said was “giving (McCarthy) the right information, and I think it shows in how he performed this past week.”
In the end, what matters is the talent that is in the quarterback room in Ann Arbor, and McCarthy will likely be the fourth former Elite 11 competitor to find his way in since Jim Harbaugh took over the program. Nall weighed in on the quarterback room at Michigan and what he sees.
“Cade McNamara was on my team a couple of years ago as well. He’s a solid player. Probably just needs to get on the field and continue to develop,” Nall said. “Joe Milton is physically gifted, but can he lead? Does he pick up the offense very well? I don’t know. I’m not around (Michigan). So it’s going to be tough, but there is going to be competition wherever you go.
“(McCarthy’s) development will be determined by who is still there. I think he can probably stand toe-to-toe with McCaffrey. That’s a really good competition to pay attention to moving forward.”