The season opener for a first-year starting quarterback is always a challenge. Any combination of factors — be it rust from the long offseason, unfamiliarity with opposing defenses or just plain nerves — could turn what’s supposed to be a fond memory into an utter disaster.
That last factor, at least, doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for Cade McNamara. Ask any of his coaches or teammates what stands out about the junior quarterback, and one word always comes first: confidence. They’ll rave about his leadership and how his fearlessness with the football spreads to the rest of the offense. At the podium, McNamara’s faith in his own abilities permeates through his voice — even above what you’d expect from a Division I starting quarterback.
One reason for that confidence? He has a deep lineup of targets to take the load off his first few starts.
“I think all the offseason work (with the receivers) is starting to come to fruition here,” McNamara told reporters Monday. “With (junior Cornelius Johnson), (senior Ronnie Bell) and all the way down to the freshmen that came in, we have a really deep group and we’re excited to get after it this season.”
At least on paper, McNamara is right to appreciate Michigan’s depth at wide receiver. The Wolverines will return five different receivers who made catches in 2020 and over 70%of their receiving yards from that season. A host of receivers once praised as electric young athletes now have the chance to grow into consistent producers in the passing game.
But it goes further than depth. Bell and Johnson — who accounted for over a third of the team’s receptions last season — should provide McNamara with a clear No. 1 and No. 2 in the passing game this season. At 6-foot-3, Johnson has both the height and catching ability to be a true downfield threat from the outside as he enters his collegiate prime years. Bell, for his part, offers both the most consistent hands on the team and the extra speed that can make him a weapon either as a flanker or in the slot. With three years of significant playing time under his belt, he also brings leadership that can help stabilize the locker room coming off the debacle that was last season.
“Ronnie Bell can jump out of a gym,” McNamara said. “He can make every catch. For me, he’s a guy that’s always willing to get some extra work, and for someone like myself who’s always trying to throw more, I can always count on Ronnie to be there.”
From there, McNamara has a wealth of other options to choose from. Senior Daylen Baldwin — who transferred to Michigan this offseason despite interest from Penn State and Ohio State — brings physicality and competitiveness that made him a nearly unstoppable force at Jackson State last season.
Whether that translates into success in the Big Ten is its own question, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a whole slate of speedy slot receivers that should be ready to take strides in 2021. Sophomore Roman Wilson, who’s been named by his teammates as the fastest player on the team, can be a threat either on crossing routes or to blow past slower safeties. A.J. Henning, another sophomore, brings a similar skillset.
Junior Mike Sainristil, too, offers speed to burn coming out of the slot. After drawing lots of hype out of fall camp in 2019 and putting up fair numbers in his first two seasons, his time to step into a larger role may have finally come.
“I would just say I’m in a position now where I’m more looked at as a leader on this team,” Sainristil said. “I’m an older guy, I’m a junior now, so I’m one of the people that the younger guys come and talk to, and I just have a bigger voice than I did before.”
When offensive coordinator Josh Gattis arrived in 2019, he preached a “speed in space” philosophy and put together a receiving room to match. Though many of those players have put up only modest performances thus far, they’re coming of age right in time for McNamara’s introduction to the starting job.
It’s tough to predict whether McNamara will succeed in 2021. If he doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of options.
Brendan Roose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org