When Shawn Dupris first met Cade McNamara, it was apparent he had something special.
Dupris had recently taken a new job as head coach of the football program at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno, Nev. McNamara’s father, Gary, a former baseball coach at University of Nevada, reached out about setting up a training session. He told Dupris his son was a multi-sport athlete who wanted to play quarterback and had a strong arm. Nothing Dupris hadn’t heard a few dozen times before.
Their first meeting and workout took place the following Monday. Dupris’s first coaching point was a correction in McNamara’s drop-back footwork — a change he made expecting the youngster would require quite some time to break the old habit. When McNamara seamlessly made the change two days later, Dupris knew what he was getting even before his protege got to high school.
“I knew right there, this kid is special,” Dupris told The Daily in August. “If you have a seventh grader and you ask him to fix something mechanical-wise, and he works on it for a day and a half and comes back with it fixed, it’s really impressive.”
Dupris immediately began raving to his staff. He told the Damonte Ranch assistants McNamara was the real deal, proclaiming they’d all be watching him on ESPN someday. To this day, they still poke fun at Dupris for making such a bold claim after just two workouts with a 13-year-old.
But Dupris was right. When the Michigan football team takes the field for its matchup against Western Michigan on Saturday, millions of Americans — his Damonte Ranch coaches included — will be watching McNamara on ESPN.
Before Dupris met McNamara, he thought Damonte Ranch was set at quarterback. The team returned a junior who started during the prior season, but McNamara’s rapid improvement didn’t slow down.
After McNamara’s eighth-grade year, Dupris decided to bring him to his club’s 7-on-7 tournaments in California during the spring. The high school-sized ball could barely fit in McNamara’s throwing hand, but Dupris thought it’d be valuable for him to see 7-on-7 action firsthand.
Even though he didn’t play initially, the trip gave McNamara the opportunity to begin making varsity-level reads. He stood with Dupris behind the line of scrimmage during games and answered his coach’s questions in real time. McNamara passed each test with flying colors, and by the end of the tournament schedule, Dupris realized he was too good to keep on the bench.
As McNamara quarterbacked the 7-on-7 team in relief, Dupris began tracking each quarterback’s performance. The results were eye-opening. McNamara regularly outperformed his counterpart, showing Dupris he had a clear quarterback competition on his hands.
“He jumped in there and did a pretty damn good job for an eighth-grader playing at the varsity level in those tournaments,” Dupris said. “I started charting. I’ll be honest, Cade was winning a lot of those competitions.”
After the two quarterbacks split time during Damonte Ranch’s first three games in the fall, Dupris named McNamara the full-time starter. Just 14 years old, McNamara was tasked with winning over a split locker room, but the returning starter had the support of the team’s upperclassmen. At first, the decision to start McNamara wasn’t particularly well-received.
“It was really hard for Cade with a locker room split as he tried to earn the trust of the older guys,” Dupris said. “He had to battle. It was harder than most people know, including his family. I think the message I tried to give him was, ‘Going through this, it’s going to help you in the future.’ And I think that’s what’s really helped him at Michigan.
“He’s not afraid of the competition. He’s been there, he’s done that. He knows what he has to do in order to earn the respect and confidence of his teammates.”
McNamara ultimately broke every quarterback record in Damonte Ranch’s history and set the Nevada prep records for career passing yards and touchdowns. He led the team to a Northern 4A regional title, runner-up finish and semifinal appearance during his career.
But above all, McNamara’s freshman experience taught him the value of competition. He developed a leadership style predicated on competition that came to define him over the years. And when he was thrown into a similar situation in Ann Arbor, that made all the difference.
A year ago, McNamara began his sophomore season as an afterthought while Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey battled for the Wolverines’ starting quarterback job. By November, he was Michigan’s primary signal-caller.
Even though a COVID-19 outbreak within the program limited McNamara to a single start, but he took advantage of his status as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback, establishing himself as a leader during the offseason.
“My leadership style began as leading by example just because of the position I was in the last two years,” McNamara said Monday. “I feel like my leadership style (of) demanding more out of my teammates and contributing more as a voice — I wasn’t able to do that as a non-starter. I feel like my position now has really given myself the opportunity to be myself again.”
There’s only one version of Cade McNamara. He’s as serious as they come regardless of whether he’s at the field, Schembechler Hall or at home, according to junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan and junior tight end Erick All. Keegan lived with McNamara last year, while All is his current roommate.
That cutthroat edge carries over to the links, too. McNamara taught All, junior receiver Mike Sainristil and junior defensive backs Quinten Johnson and George Johnson how to golf during the offseason. He often plays a round with three of his closest friends in the tight ends room: All and seniors Luke Buckman and Luke Schoonmaker. It didn’t take long for them to notice McNamara approaches golf the same way he does football.
“I just learned this year how to play. This guy is out here — and I’m thinking it’s a calm sport — he’ll mess up a hole and he’s throwing his club at the cart,” All said Tuesday. “Cade puts everything out there with him no matter what he does, and that’s the kind of people I try to be around.”
The McNamara who grows frustrated after a poor pocket throw is the same McNamara who hurls his club after an errant shot on the fairway. It’s a competitive drive he can’t turn off, shaped by a desire to win above all else. The fire doesn’t even dim, let alone burn out. That drives everyone around him to get better. His teammates came to appreciate it during the offseason.
“You can just see it in his face,” Sainristil said Tuesday. “You look at Cade, whatever he’s doing, whether it’s shooting hoops upstairs, on the football field or on the golf course, you can just see it in his eyes that he wants to win. You need a winner playing that position.”
When something comes into McNamara’s crosshairs, he goes after it with everything he has. First, it was the starting quarterback job at Damonte Ranch in 2015. And now, it’s the most important year of the Jim Harbaugh era to date.
In some ways, McNamara represents an inflection point for the Michigan football program.
He’s just the second quarterback recruited by Harbaugh out of high school to begin the season as the Wolverines’ starter. The first, Milton, was nothing short of a disaster last fall. He transferred out after an underwhelming five games.
Some saw five-star phenom J.J. McCarthy as a legitimate threat to overtake McNamara as a true freshman this fall, but that day didn’t come during the offseason. Still, McNamara will have to perform at a high level to shed the perception that he’s merely a bridge into the highly-anticipated McCarthy era.
Harbaugh signed a contract extension this past offseason, but the decreasing buyout makes it a school-friendly, prove-it deal. McNamara is his best hope at immediate improvement on offense following a dismal 2-4 campaign last fall. He’s answered the call so far.
“Constant improvement, he’s ratched it up in a lot of different areas,” Harbaugh said Monday. “The biggest one (is) consistency. The consistency of doing his job, also, call it a talent of making everyone else around you better. Maybe that’s the most important job of a quarterback.”
With the program at a crossroads, McNamara has the opportunity to help prove last year’s season was a pandemic-induced anomaly. He’s always been viewed as a prospect with all the physical tools needed to succeed. According to Harbaugh, Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis once told him McNamara was No. 1 on Alabama coach Nick Saban’s class of 2019 quarterback recruiting board. Gattis served as the Crimson Tide’s wide receivers coach in 2018, helping recruit McNamara until he pledged to Michigan that May.
First-year Michigan quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who previously worked with Lamar Jackson as part of the Baltimore Ravens’ staff, was similarly impressed with McNamara when they met in the spring.
“For everything people are going to say to criticize him, (McNamara) is a guy that’s going to end up playing 10 years in the NFL,” Weiss said on Jon Jansen’s “In the Trenches” podcast in April. “You can say he’s not enough of this, not enough of that, but at the end of the day, he’s really smart, makes great decisions and processes things very fast. His accuracy and arm strength are more than enough to win with.”
Physical tools go a long way, but the true difference-makers are intangible. McNamara has mastered more than a few. He’s learned what it’s like to battle through adversity, win over teammates and unite a locker room as a high school freshman. At Michigan, he’s discovered his voice and fended off one of the nation’s top recruits to establish himself as the team’s unquestioned starting quarterback.
Along the way, he’s developed a leadership style defined by relentless tenacity. And if that becomes a staple of the program’s identity, it could be exactly what Michigan needs in order to right the ship.