When Jim Harbaugh announced the much-watched quarterback competition between returning starter and captain Cade McNamara and young sophomore J.J. McCarthy would bleed into the regular season, many called him crazy for divulging this admittedly unorthodox approach to the situation.
It was a gamble, but the rewards have been handsome. Michigan is now 13-0 for the first time and in serious contention for the National Championship. While not all this success is attributable to the winner of that quarterback battle, McCarthy’s development from a so-called gunslinger into a leader of the Harbaughian variety warrants a review.
He is raising the ceiling of what the program is capable of, and we will soon see how high that new benchmark is. Before that happens, let’s take a look back at the progression of McCarthy's game.
Coming out of high school as the highest-rated quarterback signed by Harbaugh at Michigan, McCarthy had those who follow recruiting abuzz with enthusiasm. He possessed the complete package of size, arm strength and maneuverability never-before-seen in a Harbaugh-era quarterback. But the real hype that permeated the entire Michigan fandom originated with this play.
McCarthy reprised the role as a highlight waiting to happen in several other key junctures in the 2021 campaign, most notably at Wisconsin and against Ohio State. McCarthy showcased the talent, but was he ready to lead?
Fast forward to the third week of the 2022 season, and it became evident that — along with McNamara’s season-ending injury — McCarthy’s talents were too valuable to keep sidelined.
After putting on a clinic in the non-conference, the first three games of the Big Ten schedule were the first true tests for McCarthy’s staying power as a Michigan starter. Against Maryland, Iowa and Indiana, McCarthy completed nearly 75% of his passes and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6-to-1.
Concerns about him being careless with the ball or a “gunslinger” were steadily put to rest. He was modifying his game to fit the mold Harbaugh envisioned for the team’s success: a run-first, ball-control identity on offense; fluid and unbreakable on defense.
No. 9 had all the same abilities, but he played more like a game manager than a game breaker. His leadership prowess grew along with the identity the Wolverines were forging in the trenches.
McCarthy’s transition would be magnified in the pivotal late-October stretch against Penn State and Michigan State. Against them, the running game stole the spotlight. Blake Corum’s name dominated the conversations surrounding the program. But in logging 107 rushing yards between the two contests, some of which coming in critical spots, McCarthy reminded Michigan opponents that his ability to make plays with his feet had to be accounted for.
The identity of the Michigan Wolverines was now set. The Maize and Blue would run it down opponents’ throats and they didn’t care if you tried to stop them. He would be sharing the spotlight in Harbaugh’s master plan to dominate the Big Ten this year.
Setbacks and renaissance
Games against Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois seemingly corroborated Harbaugh’s vision. McCarthy logged a 50% completion percentage in those games. The beating heart of the Michigan offense was Corum and the offensive line, and bluntly, the passing attack looked lost. Michigan seemed like it would live or die by the run as it entered a sunny and balmy Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 26.
Down Corum and unable to gain any traction in the running game, Michigan looked listless as the second quarter of The Game dragged on. The Wolverines desperately needed a facet of their offense it hadn’t seen in several months — an explosive passing game.
It wasn’t the cleanest-looking play, McCarthy was almost sacked, but this play revitalized the passing attack and opened the door for the explosivity Michigan desperately needed:
Many words can describe this play, but one word in particular captures the essence of its conductor: gutsy. Then, a bomb to Cornelius Johnson and another on the opening drive of the second half to Colston Loveland put the Wolverines on top for good.
McCarthy also racked up several key scrambles and a rushing touchdown for good measure. When it was all said and done, he accounted for 338 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns: Not too shabby for his first start against Ohio State.
He accomplished what many other Michigan quarterbacks had failed to do: blowout the Buckeyes on the road. McCarthy kept Michigan grounded in the struggles of a tough first quarter and gave his teammates hope that they would eventually immerge victoriously. His performance was the stuff of legends and brought the marriage of raw talent and leadership he had been working on all season to fruition in the biggest game of the year.
He would follow up that masterclass with another efficient and crafty performance against the Purdue Boilermakers in the Big Ten Championship. His three passing touchdowns and maneuverability helped the Wolverines remain potent on offense before Donovan Edwards broke loose.
In the end, maturation and adaptation have been the hallmarks of McCarthy’s role in the historic 2022 campaign for the Wolverines. Concerns about carelessness with the ball and a lack of leadership experience have vanished, and his skills as a passer have remained outstanding. Through a combination of meditation, coaching and practice, McCarthy evolved from a gunslinger into a Michigan quarterback: a complete package of talent, leadership, and a willingness to put the team first.
This evolution — interspersed with highlight-reel plays — gives Michigan as good a chance as any to win the national title. We shall soon see if he can live up to that billing, too.