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Michigan QB depth behind Cade McNamara becomes increasingly important with J.J. McCarthy sidelined

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The more depth, the better.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy has taken part in practices this spring, but in a limited capacity.

Jim Harbaugh told the media in March that McCarthy has lingering arm soreness from the season. There was no surgery needed and they have a long-term plan for his arm health. Part of that plan meant McCarthy wouldn’t throw this spring if he’s not ready to.

McCarthy may be inching closer to throwing, but he didn’t line up at quarterback during Michigan’s spring game. However, McCarthy did see the field as a placeholder on field goals and extra points for the Maize team.

The expectation is McCarthy will be ready to roll once fall camp commences in a few months, the hope is he’s fully recovered before camp even starts.

With McCarthy less than 100 percent, the talent level of Michigan’s quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart become all the more important. Michigan has one of the better quarterback situations in all of college football at the top two spots with starter Cade McNamara and McCarthy behind him — but what about the likes of Alan Bowman, Davis Warren, and Alex Orji?

We saw glimpses of this Michigan quarterback trio at the Maize vs. Blue Spring game.

  • Alan Bowman: 9-of-19 for 100 yards and two touchdowns
  • Davis Warren: 12-of-23 for 175 yards
  • Alex Orji: 1-of-7 for 9 yards with 35 yards rushing

Alan Bowman

Bowman was Michigan’s No. 3 quarterback last season. He came to Michigan after starting a steady amount during his Texas Tech career, throwing for 5,260 yards, 33 touchdowns & 17 interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes. Bowman did not see the field much last year for the Wolverines, going 2-of-4 for 9 yards with an interception.

What Bowman gives Michigan is experience on the depth chart, and someone who likely knows Michigan’s playbook well at this point with this being his second season with the program. As far as the spring game, Bowman started off slow before settling in and throwing for a couple touchdowns to give his team the win. A deep throw to Darrius Clemons for a touchdown was his biggest highlight reel play of the day.

Davis Warren

Warren is pushing Bowman for that No. 3 spot. Warren is a walk-on who’s done nothing but impress coaches and teammates since he’s been on campus. Warren was on the scout team last season and was the scout team player of the week three times.

Matt Weiss on Warren

“He’s a really talented player. He did not play his last two years of high school for a medical reason and also because of COVID, they canceled the season on him. He’s a talented guy that really hadn’t played football for two years when he got here. We eased him back into it in training camp, taught him the offense, and then really just cut him loose on the scout team and he took the majority of reps as the scout team quarterback last year. Which was exactly what he needed, because he needed to get back into 11-on-11 football. Guys whizzing around the pocket, Aidan Hutchinson trying to knock the ball off of him. That really was the best thing that could have happened to him all year, doing that. Kinda got back into football because he’s really talented. We’re fortunate to have him here.

Weiss’ comments in March were a representation of what the media has already been hearing, this walk-on has the ability to light it up in practice. And then Warren showed Michigan fans he has some pop in his arm and potential during the spring game. Warren connected deep a couple times on plays that were among the most exciting of the day.

The spring game represented Warren’s first game action since 2019 — in the span of 2019 to today Warren has had leukemia, he’s had to deal with a pandemic in which his season was cancelled, and he’s recovered from his medical problems to emerge as an ascending player on Michigan’s roster. This isn’t just a good story; it explains why the young man was a walk-on and why Michigan thinks highly of him despite a long gap of not playing.

“It’s nothing new. In practice last year, he was doing the same thing, so we know that Davis can ball out when he has to,” offensive lineman Ryan Hayes said.

“He’s been doing that since he got here last year,” running back Blake Corum said. “He was on the scout team last year a lot, and he was just slinging it.”

Part of what is leading to Warren making impression resides not just with what he does on the field, but the hours he’s putting in watching film.

“If there’s one dude who was in the film room with me every single time it was Davis, he was with me every week during game week last season,” Cade McNamara said. “I had a prior relationship to him before he came to Michigan. He’s very smart and I think him being able to play, as you mentioned, it has been three years — I think he played really well today, I’m proud of him. That’s my guy, and I look forward to what he can do.”

Alex Orji

Behind Bowman and Warren is Alex Orji, who’s an early enrolee and just months removed from playing high school football.

Orji, a three-star prospect out of Texas, threw for 2,064 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2021, while rushing for 1,187 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns.

Orji’s physicality is already something that has stood out to Jim Harbaugh and Michigan players.

“I’ve seen him on tape a lot. He plays at the highest level of football in Texas,” Harbaugh told Jon Jansen on the In the Trenches Podcast. “Runs for 1,200 yards — you can watch the tape and say this guy’s a great runner, I mean, tremendous runner. If he had 400 yards, you’d say he’s a really good running quarterback. If he ran for 600, you’d say the same thing — but 1,200 yards, that’s way, way up there for a quarterback. And don’t get the thought in your head that he can’t throw the ball, he throws it really, really well.

Harbaugh said looking at Orji is “like looking at Herschel Walker playing quarterback, who can really throw the ball.”

Orji had a couple impressive runs during Michigan’s spring game — one for a big gain and another that netted Michigan a first down on 4th & 1.

“Physically, Alex is very developed. He has extremely large legs, he’s gonna be hard to bring down if he’s out in the field,” McNamara said. “He has a strong arm, but I think there’s a lot of things when you’re an early enrolee quarterback that you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to develop. Sometimes the rush comes a little faster, so I think he’s figuring that out, he’s figuring out where he fits in physically at this level. He came in very, very raw. I think him being in our room with the coaching staff, and with the other guys in the room, I think he’s gonna thrive.”

Orji did look like a quarterback still getting accustomed to the pass-rush at the collegiate level, but that can come with time on task, and he needs more of it. If anything, Orji is ahead of the curve because he’s already taking reps as an early enrolee. And there’s no denying he can already run the football at a productive clip, he can already contribute to Michigan’s offense as a runner.

Conclusion

This is where Michigan’s at right now at the quarterback position. If the season was next Saturday, these are the options that would be behind Cade McNamara. The positive spin on McCarthy being out right now is it really makes Bowman and Warren know their number can be called at a moment's notice if the top two options are to go down with injury. This does happen to some programs and some NFL teams, and they have to be ready.

Jim Harbaugh has said in the past that “it’s better to be prepared and not get your opportunity than to be unprepared and get that opportunity.” This is something he’s reinforced time and time again to all of Michigan’s quarterbacks and players.

Bowman and Warren did nice things during Michigan’s spring game, but Warren also let some throws sail, Bowman underthrew some targets — while it’s important to magnify the things they did well and build off those, it’s also about doing the little things with more consistency, doing everything more consistently. Michigan’s had quarterbacks like Joe Milton in the past, who were really good practice players, but unfortunately struggled quite a bit when they received live game action.

The construct between Bowman and Warren battling on the depth chart is interesting to say the least. Bowman’s a transfer quarterback with lots of collegiate experience, Davis Warren is a walk-on that hasn’t played a lot in the past few years, yet still could get that No. 3 spot. While much of the chatter this off-season will revolve around McNamara and McCarthy, it’s important to note it sometimes takes a village, one willing to improvise and think quickly on its feet if things go awry on the injury front. And that’s where Warren and Bowman come into the conversation.