After a season of waiting and a fall camp full of quarterback controversy, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy is set to make his first collegiate start against Hawaii this Saturday night.
It’s the second part of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s “Biblical” plan to settle the Wolverines’ quarterback competition. Senior quarterback Cade McNamara started the season opener, and he didn’t necessarily impress. Now it’s McCarthy’s turn.
“Right when I stepped in the door here, I was always prepared to be the guy snap one, game one, whatever it was,” McCarthy said with his trademark smile. “Now just having that reassurance that I’m going to be in there snap one, it kind of clears all the worry and the indecisiveness going into it. It just builds more confidence honestly.”
Besides the quarterback change, the offense will deploy nearly identical personnel, but the possibilities with a new quarterback — especially one with the physical tools that McCarthy possesses — are certainly enticing.
For starters, McCarthy is fast. Like, really fast. There have been whispers of a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, though McCarthy himself says he’s done 4.4s, he just hasn’t “put it on time yet.” Those lining up against him in practice have noticed.
“Yeah, J.J. is very elusive, very fast,” junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said.
McCarthy displayed that talent during his handful of drives in the second half of the Wolverines’ win over Colorado State last Saturday. He turned three carries into 50 yards and a touchdown, dancing in between tackles and flexing his breakaway speed in the open field. With each rush, McCarthy showcased one of the things that he can do — things that he can, and frankly, McNamara can’t.
When McCarthy is doing that, the offense looks different.
“I think (McCarthy) definitely pulls defenders, they have to know where he is,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “When a quarterback can run in the 4.5s, that gets to be faster than linebackers, so yeah, you got to have a plan to contain that. You can definitely see, even if he’s carrying out a fake, someone is paying attention.”
This isn’t just coachspeak or empty hype; there is already tangible evidence that backs it up. Comparing the red zone offense between McNamara and McCarthy in Michigan’s game against the Rams, there is an obvious discrepancy in the numbers. In McNamara’s four drives that reached the red zone, the Wolverines only found the endzone once, settling for three field goals. McCarthy on the other hand engineered two drives to the red zone and two touchdowns.
Obviously, there is more to it than just one disjointed statistic from what has been described as a warmup game, but there is the framework for a takeaway there. If that trend continues Saturday against Hawaii, an albeit, arguably worse opponent, then Harbaugh’s decision might be a little easier.
For a running quarterback, there’s a balance to be struck. On one hand, it’s good to be physical as a rusher, but on the other, there’s more at stake when a team’s starting quarterback is taking a hit. Right now, McCarthy is trying to find a healthy middle ground.
“Yeah that’s something I’ve been having to work on because I’m a hockey player in my background, so I love the contact,” McCarthy said. “I mean, it’s coming down to the point where I’m selfish when I just go out there and try to get hit and all that because I got the team on my back and I got to be healthy for them. But that’s just been a huge part as I’m getting more experienced in this running game (just) being able to avoid those big hits and avoid those injuries.”
It’s a learning process for McCarthy. And with his first start just days away, it’s time for him to show Harbaugh what he can add to Michigan’s offense.
When asked about what he can prove Saturday, McCarthy said it best:
“Everything that I’ve been trying to prove since I walked in the door here, (is) that I can win football games.”
Now he has the chance.