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Michigan 2022 QB Recap: The Rise of J.J. McCarthy

Moments of greatness with things to polish before fall of 2023.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 Big 10 Championship - Michigan vs Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To recap what happened at the quarterback position for Michigan this season we have to rewind back to 2021.

Cade McNamara was Michigan’s starter and did a fine job helping the team win games, 12 to be exact. McNamara threw for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Michigan beat Ohio State and won a Big Ten Championship over Iowa with McNamara at the helm and made the College Football Playoff. However, a five-star freshman in J.J. McCarthy was pushing him for playing time out of the gate and routinely saw the field in big moments.

McCarthy received plenty of playing time as a backup freshman in ‘21. Head coach Jim Harbaugh felt it was essential to get McCarthy time on task. McCarthy was able to show flashes of what was to come in 2022 — mobility, the ability to ad-lib and extend plays with his legs, and top-tier arm strength. In all, McCarthy threw for 516 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions, and 124 yards rushing with two rushing scores.

As early as November of 2021, it was clear that McCarthy could close the gap and be the starter by the time fall of 2022 rolled around.

“As far as long-term, who it's going to be, that prediction, everyone rents that position,” Harbaugh said. “Nobody owns the position, any position on the field. Not even the head coach. You lease, at best.”

McNamara leased the position a while longer and headed into the 2022 fall camp as the starter. An injury to McCarthy’s shoulder last led to him being shut down during spring practices, which aided McNamara in receiving extra reps from March until fall camp. McCarthy entered August near 100 percent but still needed to make up for lost time — reps matter and he had to shake off some rust. Harbaugh said the two were getting equal reps in practice, teammates said the competition was neck and neck.

The competition between McNamara and McCarthy started to receive buzz nationally, especially due to Harbaugh coming up with an unorthodox plan to decide who the starter would be.

“Cade McNamara will start the opener against Colorado State and J.J. McCarthy will start the second ball game against Hawaii,” Harbaugh announced. “And then after week two we will make a decision going into week three on the starter and backup.”

McNamara didn’t start the season hot and regressed with the snaps he received. In the start against Colorado State McNamara was just 9-of-18 for 136 yards and a touchdown. The following week, McCarthy’s first start, McNamara threw for 26 yards and an interception. McCarthy flourished during the first two weeks. In Week 1 McCarthy was 4-of-4 for 30 yards with a rushing touchdown, in his first career start against Hawaii he was 11-of-12 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Harbaugh didn’t wait long to name McCarthy the starter moving forward, doing so in the post-game press conference, saying McCarthy earned it by merit.

McNamara’s season would end a week later, suffering a knee injury shortly before halftime in the blowout over UConn. McNamara, who was named a team captain in August, would ultimately get knee surgery and transfer after the regular season. McCarthy ascended to ‘the guy’ quickly and displayed great leadership right away as a 19-year-old with a lot on his plate.

McCarthy continued to impress early in the year and having a Heisman candidate running back in Blake Corum along with a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line greatly aided his production and comfortability, too.

Through the first half of the season, McCarthy was the most accurate quarterback in the nation, and one of the most efficient, he didn’t throw an interception until Week 6 against Indiana. There were wow plays, school-yard-like and reminiscent of Fran Tarkenton.

There were also growing pains, as to be expected from a first-year starter who missed spring ball. There were times that the deep ball wasn’t connecting, sometimes McCarthy could have thrown a better ball, and sometimes the wideouts could have helped their quarterback out more. Still, McCarthy and the passing game stuck with it and never shied away from taking shots. Harbaugh’s message to McCarthy continued to be ‘let it rip’.

“He’s just soaking it all in like a sponge,” Harbaugh said in October. “Really doesn’t make the same mistakes twice. You can make the case it’s all a learning experience when you’re starting for the first time, but he’s handling it extremely well.”

McCarthy would become the first quarterback in Michigan history to win their first 12 starts, and co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss said that McCarthy was “surpassing expectations”.

There were consequential moments throughout the year where McCarthy made a big play with his arm or his legs, but no game is more glaring than his performance against Ohio State in Columbus.

The running game was getting bottled up by the Buckeyes in the first half and McCarthy put the game on his shoulders for a while. McCarthy connected on deep passing touchdowns to Cornelius Johnson for 69 yards and then 75 yards. He later found Colston Loveland for a 45-yard score. McCarthy’s deep balls were on point and he also picked up big plays with his legs, none more crucial than a three-yard scamper that put Michigan up 31-20.

McCarthy is the first Michigan quarterback to throw three touchdowns of 45-plus yards in the same game against Ohio State. For a Michigan player, their season and their career is often defined by what they did against the Buckeyes, and McCarthy had a legendary performance in his own right.

McCarthy would go on to throw for three touchdowns in Michigan’s Big Ten Championship victory over Purdue to propel the 13-0 Wolverines into the College Football Playoff. A Fiesta Bowl tilt, No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU.

Unfortunately for McCarthy he made two of the biggest mistakes of his career against the Horned Frogs, throwing two interceptions, both of which were returned for scores. McCarthy battled back and had a valiant effort, throwing for a season-high 343 yards.

“It was a titanic effort. Just a phenomenal effort by J.J, a titan of an effort,” Harbaugh said after the game. “I am so proud of him just like he was my own son. What a competitor he is. The J.J. McCarthy that I know on a day-in, day-out basis, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly — he’s a great player, great talented player, great athlete, great leader. And the best thing about him is he always puts the team above himself. Tremendous competitor. Just phenomenal.”

McCarthy and the rest of the Michigan team experienced some of the highest of highs in 2022, but the loss to TCU is something that will sting for quite some time. After the game, McCarthy made it clear where he feels Michigan’s headed next.

“Fought our hearts out,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of things that we could have done better. Can’t wait to watch the tape. But we’ll be back, and I promise that.”

Outlook moving forward

Time flies in college football. It’s hard to believe McCarthy will be a junior in 2023 and considered a veteran. McCarthy is a special talent and leader and if his career trajectory keeps ascending, Michigan could very well be more dangerous next season and McCarthy could be Michigan’s best NFL Draft prospect at quarterback in a long time.

McCarthy is the only starting quarterback returning out of the four College Football Playoff teams and the Wolverines seem like a lock to be ranked in the top four to start the season, perhaps even No. 1. Things are good for McCarthy and Michigan, but continued growth is key because he’s not a finished product just yet.

McCarthy’s an idealistic person and someone who practices meditation. He’s someone who’s envisioned winning a National Championship at Michigan, and sometimes when there’s a will there’s a way. With a whole offseason to practice and hit the weight room without restrictions like last year, McCarthy’s likely to be better and stronger by the time next season kicks off. 2023 could be a special season for the Wolverines, and if it is McCarthy will be a big part of the success.

McCarthy 2022 stats

  • 208-of-332 (64.6%) for 2,719 yards, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions. 306 yards rushing and five touchdowns.