There is no way to predict the future.
Speaking to the media on Monday afternoon, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh referenced this canon frequently when discussing his two-starter approach to the Wolverines’ quarterback competition. With senior quarterback Cade McNamara announced as the week one starter and sophomore J.J. McCarthy playing as QB1 in week two, it has become evident that the battle will continue to play out into the season.
Harbaugh made it obvious he didn’t know who would ultimately emerge as the permanent starter under center; but, in a pivot from his typically coy approach, he openly discussed the thoughts behind the decision.
“It’s a process,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not going to withhold any good thing. Both have been tremendous quarterbacks. We think that both can, or are capable of, leading our team to a championship.”
Virtually every soundbite to this point has described the battle as neck-and-neck. McNamara said last week he was playing at the highest level of his career — and he was recently voted captain by his teammates. Meanwhile, McCarthy possesses mobility from the pocket that can extend plays and has improved on his ability to read the defense.
“There’s not one criteria that you could plug in and say, ‘This will be the factor, that’ll be the factor,’ ” Harbaugh said. “And I want both the quarterbacks to keep playing their game and keep enhancing what they do really well. They don’t need to hit a metric or a number that is going to be the deciding factor because there won’t be one, other than (playing) the best player based on performance.”
Harbaugh expects to have both quarterbacks play against the Rams and will continue this contemporaneous approach into week two and possibly beyond.
Some have speculated that by naming two starters, he’s using the non-conference schedule — which is far from a murderer’s row — as the team’s preseason, akin to NFL teams letting a foggy quarterback depth chart play out on the field. But Harbaugh pushed back on this notion — feeling like, regardless of NFL precedent, this was simply the best way to sort out a situation unique to Michigan.
“This is our approach,” Harbaugh said. “We feel like it’s the best way to go and it’s gotta play out. It’s a process that will be based on performance. It is what it is. And it’s a good thing. I think a lot of teams would like to be in that position.”
It has been debated if not having a clear QB1, with two capable starters on the roster, is an enviable position for a team to be in. The adage that has been floated around the Wolverines heading into season says it isn’t; if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks.
That adage is, perhaps, the reason there’s been so much external pressure on Harbaugh to name a starter before the season begins. But Harbaugh made it clear he’s not worried about any of that.
He’s most concerned with putting his football team in the best position to win, and naming both quarterbacks as starters — for the time being — is what he believes to be the proper path forward. Few coaches face more constant scrutiny than Harbaugh, but with this situation, he’s no longer afraid to put his foot down. He’s facing the noise in a way only he knows how.
“If a coach gets up here and gives you the normal cliches then you seem very offended as journalists,” Harbaugh said, drawing a laugh from the room. “But also, when a coach gives you a really well thought out, in-depth, honest, (answer) and tells you the truth of where things stand, there’s a tendency to question motive or question intent. So, I understand that. I’m going to keep doing it the way I’ve been doing it — which is to speak the absolute truth as I know it and believe it to be.”
Another absolute truth for Harbaugh is that, in McNamara and McCarthy, he has two players who embrace competition. In today’s era of college football, where the transfer portal makes it much easier to run from a position battle, the Wolverines possess a pair of signal callers who are bucking that trend.
“You’re talking about two gritty competitors and fighters in Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy,” Harbaugh said. “Did it factor in that one would transfer or not? No. My thoughts are that they are both the kind of guys that don’t flinch, fold or quit at the slightest whiff of adverse circumstances or something that doesn’t go their way. That’s not Cade McNamara. That’s not J.J. McCarthy.”
Harbaugh has confidence in his two-starter approach.
But, as he’ll have you know, there’s no telling what the future holds.