INDIANAPOLIS — Before clarity came another dose of confusion.
For much of the year, observers of michigan football wondered whether or when former five-star rookie JJ McCarthy will supplant Cade McNamara as starting quarterback.
Some speculated McCarthy would win the job as a true freshman given his tantalizing potential and McNamara’s modest track record in a pandemic-shortened season. Others speculated the change would come a few games after last season as Wolverines promised closure and new manager Jim Harbaugh saw his pay cut in half.
But fall camp came and went with McNamara atop the depth chart. So did a regular season fueled by pro-McNamara timeshare that propelled UM to its first Big Ten championship in 17 years. The line of succession has blurred due to McNamara’s remaining eligibility: Although he’s now a senior, he’s never seen the pitch as a rookie – a potential redshirt – and could still use the season additional granted to all players at the height of COVID-19.
Yet for a moment Tuesday, during an hour-long press conference during Big Ten media days, Harbaugh seemed to indicate that McNamara and McCarthy would enter training camp on equal footing despite the success of the first last season.
“It’s going to be tough for Cade to beat JJ,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be tough for JJ to beat Cade. Put the balls there on August 3, and then they’ll get to it.
His phrasing prompted a follow-up question about how McNamara responded to the approach of fall camp without being named a starter, an inquiry that made Harbaugh cringe: “Who said he wasn’t coming in as a what starter for fall camp? …I didn’t say he wasn’t the starter.
Things turned and turned until further polls backed Harbaugh in a corner, at which point he finally set the stage for what things will look like when the Wolverines start camp next week: “Yeah, Cade is the starting quarterback. When we line up, first training, he will be with the first team. Now, finally, during training camp, JJ will have the same opportunity. He will have the same opportunity as Cade. They’re both going to have a ton of reps. There will be time to have this competition and determine who the starting quarterback is for Game 1.
In other words, the most dizzying and consequential storyline of Michigan’s offseason – Despite Harbaugh’s coquetry with the Minnesota Vikings – will linger a little longer.
Harbaugh was more open about the factors that will be used to differentiate the quarterbacks, some of whom appeared to favor the starter while others lent themselves to young McCarthy, who is said to be healthy after barely throwing during spring training to rest a shoulder injury attributed to overuse.
Harbaugh said the most important yardstick is how often each quarterback orchestrates drives that reach the end zone or, at the very least, put points on the board. It’s a percentage followed by the coaching staff and an area where McNamara excels due to his risk-averse decision-making. Harbaugh twice referenced McNamara’s success rate in producing runs on more than 50% of drives last season during his two press conferences Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Other criteria cited by Harbaugh included taking care of the football to avoid turnovers (McNamara advantage) and ability to play in the position (McCarthy advantage). He also expressed optimism about the budding explosiveness of the passing game following the return of star Ronnie Bell, the addition of three highly touted freshmen and a tight veteran who coaches say can be the best in the country (McCarthy advantage).
“I really believe our passing game is going to get even better,” Harbaugh said. “I thought it was good (last year). He has a chance to be really, really good (this year). … Lean on that too (like the rushing attack), you know? Be like a pitcher with a big fastball and a big curve. I think we have the potential for that.”
It’s a view shared by McNamara, who was one of four players accompanying Harbaugh to Indianapolis and spoke to the media earlier Tuesday afternoon. McNamara proudly described an off-season regimen that included personal physical changes and footwork improvements that left him feeling more confident throwing the ball than at any point in his UM career. He beamed when he discussed reconnecting with Bell after the pair flashed their chemistry in the first half of last year’s opener against Western Michigan.
But every few minutes came another variation of a question about McNamara’s relationship with McCarthy or how he’s approaching a quarterback job that feels like it never ends. These were the type of questions McNamara has faced for much of the year since the nationally publicized McCarthy arrived on campus as the cornerstone of Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class. .
At least he knows it’s his job to lose.
“I think if you get complacent, you get vulnerable,” McNamara said. “I think this whole situation has really helped me in the sense that I have no complacency about my situation and my position on the depth chart. If anything, I’m improving faster than I was just sitting comfortably in the quarterback room.