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Michigan QB Cade McNamara’s road so far, outlook for 2021 season

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Michigan has its starting quarterback set for the 2021 season...for now.

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

Leading up to the 2021 football season, we will be previewing every scholarship player on Michigan’s roster. We start with the quarterbacks and will continue throughout the offseason right down to the specialists. Without further ado, here we go...


Cade McNamara entered the spring as the leader for the Michigan Wolverines quarterback competition. He exited it as the clear-cut starter, as the coaching staff was outspoken about his status going into fall camp.

For much of the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan has taken its starting signal-caller competition into fall camp and oftentimes into the days leading up to the season. Sometimes it was for a legitimate competition, others for competitive purposes. Regardless of how the past has gone, the staff is switching up a variable by having a player go into the fall entrenched as the starting quarterback.

The story so far

McNamara originally committed to Notre Dame before backing out and opening his recruitment back up. His offer sheet also included Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, USC, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Nevada and San Diego State.

While not the potential star that some of his predecessors had been considered (we know how that has worked out), McNamara came into college as a polished passer and someone who may have had his ratings boosted if he played his high school ball in another state. That is not declaring him the savior of the position or someone who will be the answer to Michigan’s quarterback woes, but he was still an intriguing piece nonetheless.

McNamara did not see game action during the 2019 season while playing behind Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. Without a surefire starter heading into the 2020 campaign, McCaffrey and Milton were billed as the two players to beat for the job. However, the coaching staff had said McNamara was in the mix and considered a dark horse at the position. McCaffrey would opt-out, which locked Milton and McCaffrey into the 1-2 spots on the depth chart.

Milton would start the season, but inconsistencies and an apparent hand injury torpedoed his ability to run the offense. McNamara came in for mop-up duty in a blowout loss to Wisconsin and turned some heads with how he performed.

The following week, Milton struggled to get the offense going at Rutgers and an opportunity to lead the offense arose for McNamara. He finished the game 27-for-36 passing for 260 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-42 double-overtime victory. He earned a start the following week against Penn State, but an injury knocked him out of what ultimately was the last game of the COVID-shortened season.

Outlook moving forward

The quarterback situation in 2017 was a disaster across the board, but 2020 was not far from it. McNamara provided a glimmer of hope and entered this offseason as the last man standing, as McCaffrey and Milton both transferred out of the program. Alan Bowman is transferring in, but will not be arriving until fall camp. His arrival feels more like insurance than a competition for the starting job.

McNamara is far from guaranteed to be the future of the team, as the 2021 season brings about the arrival of five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy projects to be the No. 2 quarterback this season, but it is more of a “when” instead of an “if” in terms of when he will be ready to get on the field. McNamara will have to play well to hold him off, but it is telling about how he performed throughout the spring that his coaches are so outspoken about his status as QB1.

Upon revisiting McNamara’s film from the Rutgers performance, it was a nice breath of fresh air that he simply ran the offense and took what the defense gave him. There is calmness and poise about the way he plays. It should not be as impressive as it was that he was able to execute basic plays, but that was the position Michigan found itself in. He might not have the arm talent that Patterson or Milton did, but he is polished there and knows how to use it.

Through that lens, McNamara exiting the spring as the clear-cut starter gives Michigan a good baseline to work from in fall camp. There have been times under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis where it has felt like everyone was drinking from a fire hose. This allows them to go into camp, give everyone the number of reps they need to get and build some chemistry and familiarity with the players and system in place.

As is always the case, Michigan’s quarterback play will likely determine its ultimate ceiling this year. A lot has to go right for the Wolverines to get back into the 9-10 win range, but McNamara can be a quarterback that leads one of those types of teams. That will likely depend on the pieces in place around him as opposed to carrying the Wolverines there himself.

It is difficult to project anything on Michigan’s roster, especially at the quarterback position. McCarthy will make a push at some point, but McNamara has a chance to show he can be more than a bridge or stop-gap option. The Wolverines are in a bit of a volatile position heading into this year, but McNamara’s talent, poise and leadership could be what is needed to calm things down and reset a solid foundation.