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J.J. McCarthy and the value of high-leverage experiences under his belt

It’s hard to believe McCarthy will be a junior this fall.

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

J.J. McCarthy had a highly successful first year as Michigan’s starting quarterback in 2022.

McCarthy won the first 12 starts of his career and helped Michigan beat Ohio State, win a Big Ten Championship, and make the College Football Playoff. McCarthy was one of the most efficient passers in the nation for much of the season and finished the year with 2,719 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions, 306 rushing yards, and five rushing scores.

Time flies in college football. It wasn’t that long ago when McCarthy was the new kid on the block, but now he’s been with the program for two years and will be a junior next season. McCarthy is now a veteran and one of the biggest leaders on the team.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh spoke glowingly about McCarthy recently, noting his tremendous physical and athletic abilities, but also touched on the type of person McCarthy is.

“The rare thing is that he would sacrifice anything for any player on this team,” Harbaugh said last Thursday.

“I would follow him anywhere, happily. I suggest that all players on our team do the same thing.”

Time on task and the experiences McCarthy had last year should serve him well in the days to come. McCarthy’s now been there and done that and played in games where everything was on the line.

“I look at J.J.’s first whole first season as a starter and all the things he faced. Good, bad, cheered, booed, hit, run, throw. Everything he did, it’s about as good as you could be. A first-year starter, no question about it,” Harbaugh said. “I haven’t seen anything like that from a first-year starting quarterback. 13-0 on Christmas and we’ve never been undefeated at Christmas. I call that a season for him.”

McCarthy had to help Michigan come from behind against Illinois late in the fourth quarter to set up key Jake Moody field goals in a 19-17 last-second win. A week later McCarthy had a hell of a game against Ohio State where he threw for 263 yards, three touchdowns with 27 rushing yards, and a rushing touchdown.

There were many times throughout the season when Michigan needed McCarthy to make a big play and he delivered with his arm or his legs.

McCarthy dealt with rowdy crowds on the road last year at Iowa, Rutgers, and Ohio State, he took some big hits throughout the year and kept getting back up. He displayed toughness and resolve.

In the Fiesta Bowl College Football Playoff Semi-Final against TCU is where McCarthy faced the most adversity of the season and his career to this point. McCarthy threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, but also made many big plays to keep Michigan in the game down to the last minute of action.

“The TCU game in itself I think was practically like a whole season of experience because of all the things that happened. Behind, come back, really behind, come back, really good, every up-down hit,” Harbaugh said. “He was in so many football situations in that game, it was almost like a whole season. So it was really good.”

The Fiesta Bowl was a roller coaster with many twists and turns, the pace of the game was frantic and drama ensued throughout New Year's Day. Harbaugh’s accurate in his assessment that it felt like a whole season of experience for McCarthy with all the twists and turns and scenarios McCarthy faced against TCU. Despite making two major mistakes, McCarthy had the most single-game passing yards of his career with 343 — McCarthy threw two touchdown passes and also rushed for 52 yards and one rushing score.

Harbaugh feels McCarthy and Michigan will only become better because of that loss to the Horned Frogs.

“It’s almost like a superhero. An attack comes in, you’re able to absorb it, spit it back out in some kind of laser fashion. You just see the way they attack the next day and every day. It’s phenomenal to be around on a day-to-day basis.”

McCarthy now has a full offseason where, unlike last spring, he’s now fully healthy and the bonafide starting quarterback. The experiences that will unfold for him from now until Michigan gets their season underway on September 2 against East Carolina.

Michigan’s locked and loaded on both sides of the ball in 2023 and have one of the best rosters in college football. The goal for Michigan is always to win a National Championship but in the past two years that aspiration doesn’t seem that far out of reach. Winning it all is attainable, and if Michigan does that a big reason why will be because of J.J. McCarthy and the experiences that make him who he is as a person and as a player.