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Can J.J. McCarthy break the second-year starter curse at Michigan?

The sequel season has never been as good as the original under Jim Harbaugh.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have national championship aspirations ahead of next season and that is in large part due to the return of starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Of the top six teams in the final rankings from 2022, Michigan is the only one to return its starting quarterback, in addition to a plethora of other starters and both coordinators.

McCarthy was solid at the helm in his maiden season as the starter, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 2,719 yards, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions, as well as 306 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

It’s only natural to expect a progression in his second year, but he will first have to overcome the Harbaugh second-year quarterback curse. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has long been thought of as a “quarterback whisperer” and a guru of the position, but Harbaugh has struggled to develop a quality two-year starter while in Ann Arbor.

Let’s go back. After a disappointing finish to the 2016 season, quarterback Wilton Speight eagerly returned to prove his merits as a passer and lead a young Michigan team in 2017. While Speight was never clearly the starter in the offseason, most expected him to beat out John O’Korn and Brandon Peters (what a sad sentence), which he did before the season opener against Florida.

In his first start, Speight was awful completing just 11-of-25 passes for 181 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Ultimately, Michigan won the game, but 14 of Florida’s points were off pick-sixes from Speight.

The next two games against Cincinnati and Air Force at least provided evidence of improvement from Speight, but the improvement ceiling was capped at mediocrity. In the fourth game, Speight was injured against Purdue and never played another game for the Wolverines; Speight transferred to UCLA for his final season.

Wilton Speight

  • 2016: 12 games / 61.6 completion % / 2,538 yards / 18 touchdowns / 7 interceptions / 139.8 passing efficiency rating
  • 2017: 4 games / 54.3 completion % / 581 yards / 3 touchdowns / 2 interceptions / 121.9 passing efficiency rating

A contributing factor to Speight’s departure was the arrival of Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson. Patterson was a former five-star recruit who drew comparisons to Johnny Manziel because of his size, improvisational style, and scrambling ability.

In his first season, Patterson brought much-needed stability to the position and helped Michigan string together 10 consecutive wins during the ‘Revenge Tour.’ While the end of the season collapse against Ohio State left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, fans remained optimistic regarding Patterson and the future of the position.

Expectations were only doubled once it was announced that highly touted Alabama wide receivers coach Josh Gattis was joining Michigan’s staff as the sole offensive coordinator.

A box score overview would lead you to believe that Patterson was a gunslinger in 2019, but a closer examination would expose the truth of an erratic passer who shined against mismatched opponents.

Against Michigan’s six 10-win opponents in 2019 (Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Alabama), Patterson compiled a 2-4 record completing just 48.9 percent of his passes and throwing six touchdowns to six interceptions.

As 2020 would reveal, the team had much deeper issues than Patterson at the quarterback position, but his regression was glaring in the biggest moments.

Shea Patterson

  • 2018: 13 games / 64.6 completion % / 2,600 yards / 22 touchdowns / 7 interceptions / 149.8 passing efficiency rating (273 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns)
  • 2019: 13 games / 56.2 completion % / 3,061 yards / 23 touchdowns / 8 interceptions / 139.4 passing efficiency rating (50 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns)

Following the resurgent 2021 season, Michigan fans and those inside the program knew a quarterback competition was inevitable. The incumbent starter Cade McNamara had guided Michigan throughout its most important season of the 21st century but had done so primarily as a game manager.

Game manager or not, however, the 2021 season resulted in the Wolverines’ first victory over Ohio State in ten years and Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title since 2003.

Challenging McNamara was rising sophomore JJ McCarthy, whose undeniable talent was quickly revising the ‘quarterback of the future’ moniker into the ‘quarterback of the present.’

Harbaugh decided to let the two quarterbacks settle it during live game action with McNamara starting the first game, McCarthy starting the second, and then naming the starter for the rest of the season before the third.

In the first game against Colorado State, McNamara completed 9-of-18 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown. As a reserve, McCarthy went 4-of-4 for 30 yards and rushed for 50 yards and one touchdown on only three carries. McNamara started out rough, but eventually settled in, and McCarthy was only truly able to flash his mobility and not so much his arm.

The competition remained neck-and-neck, but against Hawaii in Week 2, the competition abruptly ended. McCarthy was brilliant completing 11-of-12 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns, compared to McNamara’s 4-of-6 performance for 26 yards and one interception.

The contrast was glaring —it was like watching a double feature of Goodfellas and Gotti— and Harbaugh made the decision to start McCarthy for the rest of the season. McNamara would appear briefly as a reserve against UConn before suffering a season-ending injury. However, McNamara was broken mentally long before his body was unable to perform physically.

McNamara is now competing to start for the Iowa Hawkeyes next season.

Cade McNamara

  • 2021: 14 games / 64.2 completion % / 2,576 yards / 15 touchdowns / 6 interceptions / 141.9 passing efficiency rating
  • 2022: 3 games (started 1) / 56.0 completion % / 180 yards / 1 touchdown / 1 interception / 121.7 passing efficiency rating

The bar is certainly high for J.J. McCarthy coming off a Big Ten Championship and an undefeated regular season, but can he take the rare next step forward that all of Harbaugh’s second-year starters at Michigan could not?