In a way, Cade McNamara has been here before.
As an incoming freshman at Damonte Ranch H.S. in Reno, Nevada, McNamara engaged in a fierce competition with the incumbent quarterback — a well-respected locker room leader and a reigning all-conference selection. The two players battled throughout the summer and into the season; by the third game of the year, McNamara became the starter, a title he never relinquished.
“In hindsight, the competition really elevated him,” Shawn Dupris, McNamara’s high school coach, told The Daily. “He’s not afraid of competition. That’s fuel. … I think that’s what defines him.”
History may not repeat itself, but its parallels to the present are endless. All these years later, McNamara is back where he started, smack in the middle of the nation’s most-intense quarterback competition. A portion of Michigan’s fanbase is breathing down his neck, set to scrutinize his every move with tweets locked and loaded in their drafts. They clamor for J.J. McCarthy, the dynamic sophomore and former five-star recruit who spent fall camp in lockstep with McNamara.
But McNamara, insulated and confident, can’t hear them.
“He doesn’t let the noise get to him,” Dupris said, noting that McNamara faced similar critique at Damonte Ranch. “It’s just who he is.”
As the incumbent himself, McNamara is experiencing the flipside of the coin. In terms of his approach, though, nothing is really different.
McNamara’s goal remains the same: He wants to win. That much is lore with McNamara at this point in his career. He first captured the adoration of Michigan fans in 2020, after piloting a comeback victory over Rutgers and pompously asking, ‘What if we win out?’ in a locker room celebration.
He professed his desire to win long before that. According to senior cornerback Mike Sainristil, McNamara made two promises when they first committed: they would win a Big Ten Championship and a National Championship, too.
Those anecdotes are borne from McNamara’s unwavering confidence. He truly believes that he gives his team the best chance to win, regardless of who he competes with. Being a backup — or ceding time to McCarthy — contradicts his agenda.
“If Cade was in the same room as Tom Brady, he’s going to try and beat Tom Brady, it’s that simple,” Dupris said. “The competitive nature is there. If he’s giving up reps, because of whatever scenario, he’s not gonna be happy about it. At the quarterback position, that’s your team. You want to be the leader. You’re seeing things that you want to deal with. So I don’t think he’s gonna be happy about it whatsoever.”
McNamara may thrive in competition, but his current predicament is an uncomfortable one. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called McNamara one of the most improved players on the team. Co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss labeled him “significantly improved.” And McNamara believes that he’s playing the best football of his life.
“I’m pushing the ball downfield,” McNamara said. “I’m throwing the ball with accuracy. My mechanics seem very clean right now. I’m not missing often. My recognition of the defense right now, it seems very clean. The more time we’ve spent with the receivers over camp, I’ve been able to gain even more chemistry with them.
“… This team is really ready.”
McNamara certainly holds himself to be a prominent part of the team. And yet he is not QB1, nor is he QB2. Harbaugh’s grand plan — though he maintained the choice is predicated on biblical reasons — is essentially to use Michigan’s lackluster non-conference slate as an NFL preseason. McNamara will start Week One, McCarthy Week Two. Ideally, someone will have separated themself by Week Three, though Harbaugh left the door open to a rotation beyond then.
Last year, after earning the starting job without much of a competition, McNamara guided Michigan to its best season in decades. He secured a monumental triumph over Ohio State and a Big Ten Championship, vaulting the Harbaugh tenure from nadir to apex in twelve short months.
And yet McNamara’s game often drew criticism — some fair, some less so. Skeptics pigeon-holed him as a game manager, someone incapable of launching Michigan to the sport’s highest-echelon. As one narrative goes, Michigan can be good with McNamara, but not great. That perception only gained traction following the Wolverines’ blowout loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals, a game in which McNamara threw for 106 yards and two interceptions as the offense wallowed.
McNamara spent the offseason addressing those imperfections. He scrutinized his throwing motion and footwork, eliminating any extraneous movement in both motions in order to maximize efficiency. Harbaugh recently noted that McNamara has “improved his pocket presence and awareness extending plays,” two areas in which McCarthy happens to excel.
“I have for sure gotten much better than I was this time last year, or even at the end of the season last year,” McNamara said. “I’ve recognized that and obviously my teammates have as well.”
And they have, not merely by naming him captain but through fall camp discourse. Coaches and players have delicately chosen their vernacular when discussing McNamara and McCarthy; everything said about one applies to the other.
The program as a whole has echoed the refrain that “the best player will play.” But how do you quantify the best player when both players are deadlocked?
Weiss alluded to Michigan’s thought process in early August, dividing the attributes that comprise a successful quarterback into three categories. First, arm strength and mobility, two traits that either come naturally or don’t come at all. Then, there are refinable elements: accuracy, timining, decision making. Finally, equally important are intangibles, like leadership qualities and a winning track record.
Where does McNamara fall?
“I’ve had plenty of kids who can throw the ball 70 yards, but they don’t hold a damn stick to Cade because the quarterback position is about way more than that,” Dupris said.
Dupris realized that when he first met McNamara, then a seventh-grader. They worked together for an hour-long session on a Friday, and Dupris identified a few areas for McNamara to work on. When they met on the ensuing Monday, McNamara had resolved the issues; he spent the weekend tinkering until he found a remedy.
That drive for perfection has never betrayed McNamara, which is why it’s hardly a surprise that he is playing his best football at this juncture. It’s a testament to McNamara, as much as it is to McCarthy, that the quarterback competition rages on. That’s why the language surrounding it is so important. Every word that Harbaugh chooses is carefully crafted, carrying a purpose.
Monday, Harbaugh maintained that this isn’t a demotion for McNamara, but rather a promotion for McCarthy. McCarthy has taken his game to another level, too, making the leap that many anticipated following his five-star pedigree and flashes of brilliance in his freshman season. If McNamara hadn’t improved so vastly, the job could very well be McCarthy’s.
But McNamara is simply doing what he has always done, forcing hands by merely getting better — better than the version that led Michigan to a Big Ten Championship, the one who threw for 2,576 yards with 15 touchdowns.
“You have special people in that regard,” Dupris said. “The, ‘I know who I am, this is what I do and nobody’s gonna take me off that track.’ That’s Cade.”
Saturday, McNamara will lead Michigan out of the tunnel as QB1. And there’s a chance it will be the last time he does so under that distinction because, to borrow Harbaugh’s jargon, the future is unknown — perhaps McCarthy does wind up unseating McNamara come Week Three.
But if there’s one thing to understand about McNamara: He’s not going anywhere without a fight.