Jim Harbaugh places his hand on Cade McNamara's helmet as he walks towards the sidelines.
It remains unclear whether Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy will be the starting QB for Harbaugh. Miles Macklin/Daily. Buy this photo.

In 2012, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — then at the helm for the San Francisco 49ers — had a decision looming. 

With his team in the midst of a playoff push, he had to choose between veteran QB Alex Smith, who at the time led the league in completion percentage and was 19-5-1 as a starter under Harbaugh, or Colin Kaepernick, a second-year player who was considered more mobile and dynamic but less proven. 

Smith began the year as the starter but got injured in Week 10, opening the door for Kaepernick. Kaepernick impressed in Week 11, and the following week, with Smith clear to play but Kaepernick coming off of an impressive performance, Harbaugh officially had a quarterback controversy on his hands. 

 Whichever way Harbaugh was leaning, he refused to tip his hand to the media. 

“I usually tend to go with the guy who’s got the hot hand,” Harbaugh said back then. “And we’ve got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand.” 

Now, 10 years later, Harbaugh finds himself overseeing a QB conundrum with the Wolverines — this time between senior Cade McNamara and sophomore J.J. McCarthy. And, at least for Big Ten Media Days, the head coach’s approach for handling questions about it appears eerily similar to a decade ago with the 49ers.

“Both had phenomenal seasons,” Harbaugh said in his opening press conference on Tuesday. “J.J. in his true freshman year, Cade in his junior year. Both played outstanding winning football every time they went out there… The best player is going to play. We’re going to know who the best player is by who plays the best.

“Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job. J.J. McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job.”

Harbaugh refused to play favorites, and perhaps, he’s truly torn because nothing in the offseason has provided clear separation between the two so far. 

McCarthy is a former five-star prospect who flashed an elite skill set when he had opportunities to play last season. He threw for 516 yards and five touchdowns in spot moments. He also served as a change-of-pace playmaker, subbing in on plays as a rushing threat and racking up 166 yards and two touchdowns over 27 attempts. 

All McNamara did, though, was guide Michigan to its best season in 25 years. While his passing numbers weren’t  overwhelming, he rarely made mistakes, throwing just three interceptions in the regular season. 

McNamara is the safer, proven option. McCarthy is more high risk, high reward. 

Throughout the summer, neither has been named the starter — or maybe both have? In the afternoon’s hour-long media session, as questions continued to pour in on his stance on the quarterback situation, Harbaugh remained coy. 

“Cade’s the starting quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “When we line up for the first practice, he’ll be with the first team. Now, eventually, over the training camp, J.J. will get the same opportunity that Cade will. They’re both going to get a ton of reps. There will be time to have that competition, determine who the starting quarterback is for the first game.”

Every time he brought up the strength of one quarterback as the starter, he quickly mentioned the other’s impressive attributes as well. It’s possible that Harbaugh knows exactly who he wants under center and doesn’t want to tip off opposing teams. But, most likely, it remains an open competition — which is an uncertainty Harbaugh is more than okay with.  

“It’s a great word, competitive — not combative,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we strive for. And that’s exactly what we had last year. And both guys are great guys — both team guys, and they’re both driven. They’re both dreaming of being that guy. They’re both putting in the work the entire offseason to make that happen. So, that’s what we’ll be shooting for again — competitive, and not combative.”

Back with San Francisco, Harbaugh rolled with “the hot hand,” keeping Kaepernick as the starter, and the 49ers went to the Super Bowl. 

Michigan has aspirations to return to the playoffs  — and figuring out which quarterback gives it the best shot to do so is the million-dollar question coming out of Ann Arbor. 

But with Harbaugh content giving out nothing but vague responses, what plays out on the field will ultimately be what gives the definitive answer.