Ten months ago, with the Michigan football team trailing 17-0 in Piscataway, N.J., Jim Harbaugh turned to quarterback Cade McNamara.
The move was seen as a last resort. McNamara, then a sophomore, began the season third on the Wolverines’ quarterback depth chart behind Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey. He had never seen meaningful game action, but after the former played his way to the bench and the latter transferred, McNamara was thrust onto the field.
He made the most of the opportunity, steering the Wolverines’ comeback win and saving the program from a catastrophic loss. He completed 27-of-36 pass attempts for 260 yards and accounted for five total touchdowns in the 48-42 overtime victory. But above all, he showed the leadership traits Michigan’s previous quarterbacks lacked.
“That’s probably the biggest statement you can make,” Harbaugh told reporters on Monday. “Coming into a game like that, that’s your opportunity. Seventeen points down, rally the team, comeback victory. That does a lot — that does a tremendous amount for your own confidence and the belief everyone has in an individual.”
Nearly a year later, that confidence has only grown stronger. McNamara has emerged as the Wolverines’ stabilizing factor, leading to a 3-0 start this fall. Even in Michigan’s run-heavy offense, McNamara’s consistency through the air maintains a valuable dimension of any college offense. Despite limited opportunities to throw, he’s completed 24 of his 37 passes so far — a 64.9% completion rate — and has three touchdowns through the air, including an 87-yard bomb, the third-longest in program history.
McNamara’s early success dates back to the end of last year, when he went into the offseason as the program’s unquestioned starting quarterback. That allowed him to take on a bigger leadership role following a dismal 2-4 season in 2020.
“When something’s not right, he’s going to speak up,” fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins said. “He’s going to point it out. He’s a great guy, a great leader. He wants to be successful, he wants his team to be successful and he does everything he needs to do for the team to win. He’s a great leader. Everyone looks up to him. Everyone listens to him when he talks. He’s going to continue to be a great leader, he’s going to continue to play well and he’s going to continue to do great things.”
Immediately following Shea Patterson’s departure in 2019, the Wolverines struggled to find a reliable pocket presence. That’s not for a lack of trying, though. While McNamara patiently waited his turn, others gave it a shot at the helm.
Milton, for all his untapped potential, never panned out. McCaffrey decided to opt out and enter the transfer portal before last season even began.
Yet, any newcomers brought in to add depth to the roster haven’t been able to pry the job from McNamara. Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman still hasn’t thrown a pass in a Michigan uniform. Five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy has shown flashes of special talent, but he lacks the consistency of a veteran like McNamara.
Since the two-year Patterson era ended, McNamara is the only quarterback to establish firm control over the job. He hasn’t earned it with style points or circus throws — rather, his fundamentally sound approach has set him apart.
“He’s been consistently good since he’s played in games,” Harbaugh said. “The ability to drive the team for points, that’s getting really impressive. His overall confidence, ability, time on task, reps … just like anybody when you play in a game and realize you can do this. Not as hard as it seems. Get better at football by playing football.”
When McNamara takes the field against Rutgers this upcoming Saturday, his journey from third-stringer to starter will come full circle. And his grip on the job has only grown tighter since leading the Wolverines’ memorable comeback against Rutgers 10 months ago.
“He capitalized on his opportunity and took the bit and ran with it,” Harbaugh said. “Got to give great credit to Cade for doing that, for having the fortitude to step in there and take the bull by the horns. And he hasn’t given it up, so that’s all to his credit.”