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Preseason positional grades: Michigan’s quarterback room is top-heavy, but that might be enough

Protect J.J. McCarthy at all costs.

Michigan Spring Football Game Photo by Jaime Crawford/Getty Images

For so long, the quarterback position in Ann Arbor received unrelenting scrutiny from the media and fans. However, since J.J. McCarthy entered the program, there has not been a peep of anger, as there was finally a clear sense of direction.

The former five-star recruit is entering his second full season as a starter, and in his first, he led the program to another Big Ten Championship and another College Football Playoff appearance. Behind him, there is once again a veteran presence and some other familiar faces, but no rock-solid Plan B.

Quarterbacks - Grade: A

  • Starter: J.J. McCarthy
  • Backups: Jack Tuttle, Davis Warren
  • Young Depth: Alex Orji, Jayden Denegal, Kendrick Bell

There is only one quarterback room in college football that has a returning starter that led his team to a College Football Playoff berth last season, and it’s your Michigan Wolverines. McCarthy is the only quarterback in the country with that kind of experience this season, so he does have a step up over Heisman favorites like Caleb Williams and Drake Maye in that department.

However, that does not mean that he and this room are without flaws. Blame it on McCarthy or the receiver corps from last year, but the deep ball connection was absent for a majority of the season in 2022. It started to come back a bit late in the year, which helped the Wolverines take down Ohio State and Purdue and get back into the shootout with TCU in the CFP Semifinals. So, there is hope that it will be reignited for the whole 2023 season.

That’s why we are seeing more comments from Jim Harbaugh about this offense looking more 50-50 run-pass in 2023. I think that for the first time since he has been at Michigan, Harbaugh has unwavering confidence in his quarterback and will unleash the entire playbook for him. It’s something Michigan fans should expect and adore, and opponents should be very wary of.

This is because McCarthy has shown that he can do it all. He has commanded the offense in the clutch, thrown unbelievable balls on the run, and run the playbook to a tee. The leadership qualities you look for in a young quarterback are there, too. It’s the best pro-style quarterback situation Michigan has had in decades, and it’s the No. 1 reason for National Championship optimism for the program.

The nature of the position

Lord forgive me, but if McCarthy goes down, so does the season. That was the case last season after the injury to Cade McNamara as well; the worst-case scenario for any team with those kinds of aspirations.

However, there have been moments within a title run when a backup would come in to finish a drive, half, or even a game that kept the dream alive. With McNamara off to Iowa and Alan Bowman transferring as well, this team was in desperate need of a veteran backup quarterback. Harbaugh saw that too, which is why he went and got Jack Tuttle from the transfer portal.

Tuttle was a captain at Indiana last season, and his self-proclaimed purpose for coming to Ann Arbor was to win a National Championship. He’s got the mentality and the grit to help Michigan get there if his name is called upon. Tuttle was never a long-form starter in Bloomington, but he was certainly a valuable player. In the Spring Game, he impressed with his ability to step up in the pocket and run when he needed to. He was also the starter opposite of McCarthy, which showed that he may have a small edge over Davis Warren.

Warren isn’t going to go quietly though and he arguably had a better performance than Tuttle in the Spring Game, going 8-for-13 for 163 yards. The former walk-on has continuously impressed the coaching staff and would probably have reached a starter status elsewhere in the country. He’s always been a fighter — including beating a cancer diagnosis in high school — so his love of the game and mentality has never failed. I think he would also be a great option for the Wolverines if McCarthy were to go down.

Behind those two is some young depth, and the first name to come to mind is Alex Orji. Everyone knows him from that infamous Robert Griffin III touchdown run call last season, but not many know how unique of an athlete this guy is. He’s shown off his legs a few times while in Ann Arbor, but he also has a cannon of an arm. There has been some speculation that there could be a few packages designed specifically for Orji. It wouldn’t be something we haven’t seen in the past, but now that his redshirt is burned, we’ll likely see a bit more of him in 2023.

Then there are a few wildcards on the roster including Jayden Denegal and Kendrick Bell. Denegal is a redshirt freshman that saw a snap or two against UConn last season; we’ll see him a tad more of in 2023. Then there is Kendrick Bell, a true freshman who will also likely see a few non-conference snaps. He’s the brother of recently exited Ronnie Bell, who Harbaugh absolutely adored.

Overall, the quarterback room is in tremendous shape for 2023 and beyond. McCarthy is one of the most promising young arms in college football and has a chance to enter Michigan royalty if he can lead this team to the promised land. Even if he gets a little dinged up along the way, the Wolverines have the veteran depth necessary to lean on, and even a few young guns that may make a few appearances in blowouts. It’s a really healthy room that rivals the best in the country.