ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Every other week, Michigan football fans have reprised an age-old tradition: clamoring for the backup quarterback.
In Ann Arbor, often the backup QB is the most popular man on campus, until he gets the reins for a few games, then his backup is then the most popular. Last year, it was Cade McNamara who was backing up Joe Milton. But now that McNamara is the bona fide starter, at even the slightest hint of struggle, the most ardent maize and blue faithful quickly clamor for J.J. McCarthy, the former five-star who is now a true freshman.
Yes, McCarthy is talented and we saw an incredible throw in his first ever game, but that doesn’t mean that he’s ready to take over the reins. In fact, to hear quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss tell it, it’s not just because McNamara has bided his time or some other metric that eludes the fan base. No, he’s won the starting quarterback job fair and square, because the best player for the position will start for the Wolverines.
“Cade is the starter because he’s earned it,” Weiss said. “Really happy with both guys. But the idea that Cade somehow waited his turn and that’s why he’s playing — you guys know with Coach Harbaugh, ‘The Team, The Team, The Team.’ If you met somebody at a gas station with eligibility that could start for us and help us win, that guy would start. That’s why Cade’s the starter.”
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That said, it is something of a luxury this year that Michigan does have both McNamara and McCarthy. McNamara has been solid, but wasn’t great in limited throws against Washington, and the same can be said for the second half against Rutgers — though he had a spectacular first half. Michigan hasn’t called upon him much yet this year, though it’s likely to when it takes on Wisconsin and its vaunted run defense on Saturday.
As far as the competition between the two is concerned, Weiss wants to ensure that they bring McCarthy along more slowly, getting him properly acclimated and developed, because he’s seen what happens when coaches get enamored with talent and throw young signal callers in to save their season.
“We’re blessed to have really talented players who can play at a high level,” Weiss said. “I think at a lot of places, J.J. would probably be the starting quarterback, but we have the luxury where we don’t have to throw him in the fire right away. And we are trying to play him whenever he can get the opportunity so that he can develop. That’s really to his benefit, it’s to our benefit. Obviously, we want our backup quarterback ready to play whenever he’s called upon. The best way to do that is to play him when we can.
“I think he actually leads the country in true freshman quarterback snaps from the guys who were highly recruited. We’re gonna keep developing him, keep bringing him along. But the thing that will happen is, you put the guy in the fire and they come out fine and other times they don’t. The other part of that, too, is some guys have success, but you limit the scope of the offense because it’s an inexperienced player and then you have success. But you leave the offense like that and they never fully develop. I know I’ve seen that before with guys when they get to the NFL, to the next level, where they played all four years in college and you can’t believe how limited the offense was because they started as a true freshman. They started winning and would say, ‘Hey, this is great!’ and just kept doing it. This allows him to develop more fully with the luxury of being able to play Cade.”
But that doesn’t mean that McCarthy doesn’t have a mastery of the playbook. As Weiss notes, he does, and if he were to come in if, say McNamara was unavailable, then the offense wouldn’t be limited like the scenario he mentioned.
The bigger issue is that as talented as McCarthy is, Michigan is still working to refine it. Until that point where he has the decision-making, accuracy, leadership, and timing beyond what McNamara has displayed, he will remain the backup. But if he’s needed, he certainly won’t be limited.
“J.J. can run the whole offense, no doubt about it,” Weiss said. “Big thing with him, too, is there’s this narrative that he’s somehow this phenomenal talent. And he’s talented, but you look at the list of five-star quarterbacks, go through that list for years past, there’s a lot of names you’ve never heard of. And they were all talented. I think the difference for him, what he has, why we’re so excited about him is the makeup, the character, his approach to everything. All that stuff is there. So we’re excited about him.”