ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy has consumed the Michigan football fan base this offseason, and this weekend, Jim Harbaugh fanned the flames by giving starts to both.
Here’s the plan: Harbaugh is going to stick with McNamara, the incumbent, for the season opener Saturday against Colorado State. Then, McCarthy, the hot-shot sophomore, will get his first start the following week against Hawaii.
Unusual? Definitely. Risky? Depends who you ask.
Risks of quarterback competition
There’s a segment of old-school football fans who will tell you, “If you’ve got two quarterbacks, you actually have none.” Others will point to the way Harbaugh rotated both players in 2021 as proof that Michigan can make it work.
As for me, I’m still mulling this over. There are so many factors at play, both on and off the field.
My knee-jerk reaction when I saw the announcement Saturday was to reject this plan. Pick a starter, give him all the No. 1 reps, and get the offense on the same page.
How many times have we seen coaches drag their feet when deciding between quarterbacks, only to throw off the entire rhythm of the offense? There’s also a risk that both quarterbacks will be trying to avoid mistakes that could cost them the job, with one eye constantly on the sideline.
That’s not the way to get the best out of either quarterback.
Sure, it’s only for the first two games (for now). But if an entire season of McNamara and then an additional offseason of competition isn’t enough to declare a starter, is one game apiece against Colorado State and Hawaii really going to make the picture much clearer?
Cade McNamara’s claim
The points in favor of McNamara are simple: He’s the defending Big Ten championship winning quarterback. It had been a decade since Michigan’s last win over Ohio State and nearly twice that long since the program’s last conference title.
In that time, quarterback after quarterback wore the Winged helmet, and none of them could live up to what McNamara accomplished in 2021. He had an excellent defense and a strong running game, but so have other Michigan teams of the recent past. His accolades speak for themselves.
Plus, McNamara and his coaches insist he’s improved drastically throughout camp. Everyone knows he has a higher floor than McCarthy, so if his ceiling has risen as well, that’s another argument in his favor.
McNamara is a team captain and by all accounts has the respect of his teammates. If he’s the starter, there’s no risk of backlash in the locker room. But uprooting him for an unproven sophomore could cause friction, if the results aren’t immediately positive.
Last season, McNamara threw only six interceptions in 327 pass attempts. He didn’t throw a single pick in 71 attempts the year prior.
McCarthy, on the other hand, threw two interceptions on 59 pass attempts. He also fumbled the ball twice in critical moments against Michigan State, including one unforced fumble that indirectly cost Michigan the game.
Is he capable of making more throws than McNamara? Probably, but there will be more damaging mistakes, too.
JJ McCarthy’s potential
McCarthy’s argument centers fully around upside. As a former five-star recruit who showed flashes of elite raw talent last year, there’s no doubt that Michigan’s 100th percentile outcome involves McCarthy under center.
Everyone saw the throw against Georgia in the College Football Playoff. His 69-yard touchdown pass to Daylen Baldwin against Western Michigan displayed all his skills in one perfectly chaotic bundle: Speed, escapability, and arm strength.
Also, people assume that because he’s younger, McCarthy doesn’t have great leadership qualities, but that’s never been the case. From the moment he committed to Michigan, McCarthy helped put together an elite recruiting class. He was outspoken in support of the Wolverines during a difficult COVID-shortened season in 2020, and has never once wavered in his commitment to the program.
In an era of players transferring at the slightest sign of adversity, his loyalty is refreshing.
Not one member of the 22-player recruiting class headlined by McCarthy transferred this offseason, even though many of them didn’t play at all as freshmen. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a testament to Harbaugh and, in part, McCarthy.
Mobility is another factor that weighs heavily in McCarthy’s favor. There’s no question he’s the more athletic of the two candidates, and while Michigan has enough weapons without a dual-threat quarterback, it never hurts to have an extra element, especially against the likes of Ohio State, Georgia, or Alabama.
With a stronger arm and more athleticism, McCarthy has been a fan favorite since stepping on campus, and it’s easy to see why.
Reading between the lines
Every move Harbaugh makes is calculated, and I don’t believe for a moment that he can’t decide between the two quarterbacks.
So then, the question becomes: What’s his angle? Why allow this competition to drag into September instead of naming a starter and focusing on defending last year’s Big Ten title?
There are a number of possible explanations, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that Harbaugh is setting the stage for McCarthy to take over.
If he thought McNamara gave Michigan the best chance to be successful, he easily could have just named him the starter. Nobody would have blamed him for picking the more experienced, widely respected upperclassman who just led the team to its best season in 25 years.
By giving them each a one-game public tryout, Harbaugh can more justifiably make what would certainly be a risky move. If McCarthy out-performs McNamara in Week 2, Harbaugh can shrug and say, “Well, you all saw it too.”
McNamara won 12 games, earned rave reviews for his offseason improvement, was elected a team captain, and still didn’t get the job outright. Harbaugh is obviously giving McCarthy every possible opportunity, which suggests to me that he prefers the sophomore.
On the other hand, if McCarthy struggles or McNamara shines, it’s easier for Harbaugh to defend sticking with the latter. Even McCarthy supporters couldn’t reasonably argue with Harbaugh if the sophomore turns the ball over three times against Hawaii.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” We’ve all heard the saying, and it certainly applies here. But you could easily counter with, “No risk, no reward.” That’s what Harbaugh is weighing with this decision: Is the risk of losing last year’s magic worth the potential reward of fielding a superstar quarterback?
Other factors at play
Let’s address the elephant in the room: the transfer portal.
No matter who ultimately wins the starting job, the other player is likely to transfer. There’s no beating around the bush -- that’s just the way college football works nowadays.
McNamara -- because he didn’t play as a true freshman and due to the extra year of eligibility from the COVID season -- could spend two more seasons at Michigan after 2022. So even though he’s technically a senior and McCarthy is a sophomore, they both have the same college eligibility remaining.
So unless one of them leaves early for the NFL, the next few weeks could determine Michigan’s fate for the next three years. If you think loyalty to Michigan is enough to make one of these starting-caliber quarterbacks sit the bench for two more seasons, you haven’t been paying attention to the college football landscape.
The Wolverines don’t have much depth at the quarterback position beyond McNamara and McCarthy. Jayden Denegal plummeted in rankings following his commitment, and Michigan whiffed on both in-state stars Dante Moore and C.J. Carr.
Would skipping over McCarthy and watching a five-star talent transfer without ever getting a chance hurt Michigan even more on the recruiting trail? Other coaches would certainly try to use it against Harbaugh in pursuit of high-end quarterbacks.
This is an extremely complex decision that will have major ramifications for Michigan both on and off the field in the years to come, so Harbaugh needs to get it right.
It didn’t originally feel like the Colorado State and Hawaii games had much meaning. Now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.