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J.J. McCarthy’s keys to ascension

McCarthy has a chance to be special, and his story is just getting started.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Football is unpredictable, and much like life, it’s ever changing.

Cade McNamara was Michigan’s starting quarterback in 2021, he played admirably for a team that beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten Championship, and made the College Football Playoff.

Nine months after Michigan’s loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl, a new starting quarterback emerged in J.J. McCarthy.

McNamara started the season opener, McCarthy the second game. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said a determination would be made after the second game as to who would be the starting QB moving forward. It was McCarthy who emerged as the starter after Week 2 versus Hawaii, a game where McCarthy was 11-of-12 for 229 yards passing and three touchdowns.

McCarthy started Week 3 and performed very well once again, going 15-of-18 against UConn for 214 yards. The game was a 59-0 blowout, and McNamara received action. Unfortunately for McNamara, he was injured during his one drive on the field. Harbaugh told the media McNamara’s foot was caught in the ground while he was getting hit on the side of the leg. McNamara’s injury is unfortunate for him and the Michigan team. A speedy recovery will be what’s hoped for, but life goes on and the team must roll with the changes.

McCarthy is now not only Michigan’s starting quarterback, he’ll be taking on a bigger leadership role while McNamara isn’t able to physically go through the motions in practice. While McCarthy has an edge on McNamara in terms of arm talent and athleticism, there’s no doubt McNamara’s football IQ, presnap recognition, and his ability to read coverages have been a benefit to the Michigan offense and QB room. Now it’s on McCarthy to be at McNamara’s level of awareness or higher.

McCarthy looks to be the real deal, a player who has been as advertised ever since he stepped foot on campus. McCarthy has been in Michigan’s system over a year at this point, and he seems ready to receive the keys to Michigan’s offense. They need him to be ready.

“It’s a tremendous honor by coach Harbaugh,” McCarthy said on Saturday. “I’m gonna do the same thing that Cade would do, do everything I possibly can to win football games for this program. Work my butt off every single day, be prepared as much as possible, and play my heart out every single week.”

McCarthy is high-energy, even in walkthroughs before games. Working hard with enthusiasm won’t be a problem for him.

“Talking about guys that have it, the it factor,” Harbaugh said about McCarthy. “He kind of wows me at walkthrough, just the way he bounces around and the enthusiasm he has for playing. Like a like a kid in a candy store, it’s fun to be around.”

McCarthy’s infectious attitude can get him far, as can his abilities to create home run plays with his arm and his legs. However, McCarthy is making ball security a point of emphasis. There’s a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness, and McCarthy is aware of the difference.

“The ball is the program, protecting the ball is everything,” McCarthy said after the win over UConn. “There’s gonna be time and place for shots down the field like that. But in situations like third-and-long and you’re on your side of the field, you’ve got to be smart there — you can’t just give the ball to the other team.”

Another area of growth for McCarthy will be staying safe as a runner. McCarthy can scoot with the best of them, he has 4.5 40-yard dash speed, and he will be dangerous escaping pressure and running the read-option. What’s imperative is for McCarthy to be careful running the ball. Knowing when to get down, get out of bounds, avoid contact when possible, is the way to go. Don’t take the big hit. McCarthy, a former hockey player, embraces contact, but he knows he has a responsibility to stay healthy.

“That’s something I’ve been having to work on because I’m a hockey player in my background, so I love the contact,” McCarthy said last week. “It’s coming down to the point where I’m selfish when I just go out there and try to get hit and all that. Because I got the team on my back and I got to be healthy for them. That’s been a huge part as I’m getting more experienced in this running game, being able to avoid those big hits and avoid those injuries.”

In the evolving college footbal landscape it often takes a versatile athlete at quarterback to help lead a team to a championship, and there’s no doubt McCarthy is dynamic. What remains to be seen is how quickly McCarthy ascends, if he can play at a high level consistently against the best teams on the schedule.

Big tests are looming for the 19 year old McCarthy. There’s Maryland next Saturday, there’s Iowa on the road the week after, Penn State and Michigan State in October, and of course, Ohio State at the end of season. McCarthy’s story is just getting underway, and what he does between right now and the last time he wears a Michigan jersey will define his time in Ann Arbor.

McCarthy is taking a game-by-game approach to his improvement. Whether he has a good or bad game, once it’s over he wants to “throw it into the ocean” and move on to the next task at hand.

When McCarthy takes the field against Maryland it will be his 15th appearance with the Wolverines and his third career start. McCarthy is now getting a lot of time on task as the starter, and it’s expediting his growth as a player. The game isn’t as fast to him, he’s standing tall in the pocket with poise and going through his reads appropriately.

“With every game, you just get more and more comfortable and being more and more comfortable, the progress is just gonna be exponential,” McCarthy explained. “Playing around these guys, their greatness rubs off on you and it makes things easy out there.

Getting through the reads, everything’s slowing down, my mind is not racing anymore. Everything’s just slowing down and I just feel at ease out there, I really do. And that’s something that has changed from last year to this year. Through having those kind of experiences, it feels like it’s putting me on the exponential growth track.”

Michigan had a great season in 2021, but that’s now the bar for the program, and they aim to climb to new heights. Will McCarthy be the quarterback that helps Michigan get to the mountain top? Time will reveal that. What already has been revealed is J.J. McCarthy is an exciting player who could rapidly become the best quarterback of the Jim Harbaugh era.

McCarthy won a National Championship as a senior at IMG, a year where he threw for 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Now he’ll be looking to put together similar TD-to-INT ratios at Michigan along with postseason success.