The Michigan Wolverines are going to open fall camp on Friday with one of their biggest questions answered. For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan publically proclaimed a starting quarterback before the season opener after Cade McNamara had a strong showing in the spring.
Not much has changed since then other than the arrival of Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman this summer. He will get a shot in fall camp to impress, but it seems like he has a lot of ground to cover.
“It just does not look like Cade’s going to let that go,” Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis last month. “It’s not going to go without a huge fight. It’s like watching the biblical ‘iron sharpens iron.’’’
True freshman and former five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy is the one putting up the biggest fight where we stand today. No player on the entirety of Michigan’s roster provides as much hope for the future as he does. The staff seems willing to let him play as early and often as the opportunity allows, but McNamara is holding him off.
Bowman was brought in as depth and insurance for Michigan’s quarterback room. He could potentially push McNamara for QB1 and certainly will be battling for QB2 with McCarthy, but his addition was not more complicated than Michigan just needing another arm. Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey transferring out created a bit of a void on the roster.
Those three — along with Dan Villari, who projects to play a Taysom Hill-esque role — make up Michigan’s scholarship quarterback room.
Contrary to popular belief, Harbaugh has been able to pull good play out of his signal-callers, but it obviously has not been enough to push them over the top. What Wilton Speight was giving them pre-Iowa injury in 2016 is probably the closest thing they have had to championship-caliber quarterback play. That was five years ago and it has been an inconsistent battle since.
The fact that we are seven years into the Harbaugh regime without the development of a recruited quarterback has been a narrative pounded into our heads ad nauseam. They have not done a good enough job there and raw prospects like Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton were never able to refine their skills enough to be the solution. Those are troubling whiffs in both evaluation and player development. Quarterback play does not make up the entirety of Michigan’s issues, but it has been a big one.
The one thing that may be working in Michigan’s favor moving forward is trending away from bringing in “toolsy” prospects and making a play for polished passers out of high school. McNamara’s high school film was pretty good and he might have been higher-rated had he not played in Nevada. Does that mean he has as high a ceiling? Maybe not. But the difference between what Milton was and what Cade is was apparent in brief action last year.
McNamara does not have the physical tools that his predecessors did, but when he came in for Milton he simply ran the offense and led drives. It’s remarkable that a baseline expectation for what a quarterback should do was impressive to us, but that speaks to how poor the offense was last season.
McNamara has calm confidence in him and has taken the reigns this offseason from a leadership standpoint. He might not be this season’s breakout passer like Zach Wilson was in 2020, but the skill-set is there to be someone who makes the right and throw and runs an efficient offense. Michigan would be thrilled with that. It might not be enough to get them to Indianapolis, but it could get them back in that 8-to-9 win range if things break right. That would be stabilizing after last year.
“You talk about taking the reins in leadership, that’s something (Cade) has done,” Harbaugh said at media day. “He has been that guy throughout the entire spring and training cycle in the summer. By example and also pulling other guys along with him. He’s a fiery competitor. He’s got that gene. He must win, he must give it his best at all times.
“And then JJ McCarthy has some of those very same qualities and did an excellent job in spring practice. He’s fighting. He’s got the athletic ability and the arm talent to get it done. But Cade McNamara is not letting him take it away. That’s probably the best thing for our team and JJ and all of us. That is where we stand, as I see it, at quarterback.”
Speaking of college-ready passers, McCarthy fits that bill and also has the big skill-set and potential. Every incomplete pass that McNamara throws this season will have a portion of the Michigan fanbase calling for McCarthy to play. The backup quarterback is always the most popular player on the roster. He is massively talented and there is a ton of pressure already on his shoulders. It probably is not easy to be labeled as the guy most responsible for the coaching staff’s long-term outlook before you even step on campus, but he seems the type of guy that is ready for that.
Michigan cannot afford to miss on McCarthy, so taking a cautious approach and bringing in someone like Bowman is not the worst thing in the world. If he can hold him off for QB2 duties, that’s tremendous. If he can accelerate his development to the point of beating out McNamara by the end of fall camp, people should be legitimately excited for that. It has been laid out publically by the coaching staff how Herculean an effort that would take, probably by design. Michigan wants to push him and he will play when he is ready to. It feels like a safe bet that they find a way to get him in four games this season to preserve a redshirt if they can. They won’t be worried about burning the redshirt if they have to, though.
Barring an injury somewhere, Michigan finds itself with three solid options at quarterback. You can either choose the guy who led some of your only promising offensive drives post-Minnesota last year. You can choose the five-star freshman that is oozing with talent. You can choose the former Big 12 starter that has put up solid numbers in the past. The solution coming from those first two guys is obviously the most ideal, but they need to win football games too. Whoever gives them the best chance to do that will be on the field.
It would be silly of me to come here and declare Michigan’s quarterback woes solved because the room looks good on paper. Someone will weaponize that and use it against me if/when something goes wrong. But it does not feel like a hot take to say that despite all of their warts, the staff has managed to put together what feels like a pretty healthy quarterback room. They have to coach them up and put them in positions to succeed, but there are bodies here.
Find one. Win football games. Profit.