Few fanbases can place an unproven quarterback on a pedestal like Michigan’s. There’s seemingly a new program-saving player set to lead the Wolverines to the promised land almost every year.
For the second season in a row, the Michigan fanbase has pinned its hopes and dreams to J.J. McCarthy. And this season, he just might live up to them.
With his first start set to come on Saturday night against Hawaii, the sophomore quarterback finally has his opportunity. According to McCarthy’s old high school coach, Nazareth Academy head football coach Tim Racki, that isn’t something that McCarthy will take lightly.
“It’s something he’s had his eyes on,” Racki told The Daily. “He’s good at keeping his head where his feet are, but — like we all do — he has goals, and this has always been his goal.”
McCarthy has never actually started a game at the collegiate level, and while many have seen bits and pieces of his game — a play here, a drive or two there — he is still a relative unknown. During his time in Ann Arbor, McCarthy has just been an all too vague and overused term: upside.
But it goes beyond just an opportunity. Racki has been around McCarthy since he and his dad stopped by the Nazareth practice fields one summer before McCarthy could even hold a regulation football. So when he says with conviction that it’s not a “matter of if, just a matter of when” McCarthy wins the starting job, one can’t help but believe him.
You see, there’s always been this type of attention surrounding McCarthy. In high school, Racki reminisces about times there were lines of youth football players “50 yards long” waiting for McCarthy to sign an autograph. In typical J.J., fashion he stayed back and signed every single one. He was a local celebrity.
“People don’t know because even in high school in our area, he was an incredibly popular athlete,” Racki said. “All our games were capacity crowd … because of J.J.”
It isn’t much different now, just bigger.
As an early cycle commit and five-star quarterback, McCarthy commanded a level of attention that has demanded nearly immeasurable hype. Since his commitment in May of his sophomore year — after just one season as the starter at Nazareth Academy — that hype has only swelled.
Nearly everytime he enters the game at the Big House, he gets raucous cheers, and chants of “We want J.J.” fill up the student section when he’s on the sideline. At this point, the clamors for McCarthy have become nearly insatiable. He can’t possibly live up to the tremendous expectations laid upon him, right?
There’s almost a mythos to him, and the McCarthy lore is a deep one. Talking to those who have been around him for years, such as Racki or Nazareth quarterbacks coach Brody Budmayr, they have story after story about him, each more unbelievable than the last.
Take the first seven-on-seven scrimmage of McCarthy’s sophomore year, where he showed up just minutes before the event started.
“This kid comes hauling ass right on a bicycle, throws the bicycle aside, hops over the fence and gets warmed up and then proceeds to throw four touchdowns in the first game,” Budmayr told The Daily.
Or there’s the fact that Nazareth’s current audible system, according to Budmayr, quite literally came from McCarthy.
And of course there’s the story that says the most, the time that McCarthy led Nazareth to a state championship with a broken hand — a story that, according to Racki, made Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s eyes “get real wide” when told.
It was Thanksgiving Day of McCarthy’s sophomore year, his first season as Nazareth’s starting quarterback, and the Class 7A state title game loomed on Saturday. In practice, McCarthy hit his hand on one of his teammates helmets and Budmayr said everyone’s hearts stopped for a moment. After a brief pause, they ran a play to try and test it out and McCarthy fell down to one knee because he couldn’t grip the ball.
Over the next two days they tried to do whatever they could to stop the inflammation, but it was only mildly effective. Even still, McCarthy trotted out onto the field that Saturday and led his team to a 31-10 victory over St. Charles North for the Illinois state title.
But throughout the game, even though he was playing with a broken hand, McCarthy hung his head. He wasn’t satisfied with his performance. Budmayr recalls that he had to go over to McCarthy on the sideline and remind him to keep his situation in perspective.
McCarthy’s brand is quite literally a smiling face, and both Racki and Budmayr assured that persona is genuinely what McCarthy is like. But there is still that other side to him.
“He’s the type of guy that when the game is on the line, he wants the ball,” Budmayr said. “You’re gonna put it in his hands and you’re going to live and die by what he has. (He’s) very, very competitive.”
Obviously, simply being competitive won’t be the great separator for McCarthy. Just as a strong work ethic won’t push him over the edge, immense talent can only take a player so far.
But it’s McCarthy’s combination of those traits — the fact that he works as he hard as he does with the physical tools he has — that have made those around him truly believe that he is the one.
The sense that you get from talking to people such as Racki and Budmayr is how they believe, unequivocally, that McCarthy will not only live up to the vast expectations, but that he can surpass them.
“We give our kids Sunday off and (McCarthy), from freshman year on, would come in Sundays with the offensive staff to study,” Racki said. “And then he had a whiteboard and a notebook of his own notes. He put in the time, even though he was a high level athlete, and he could do it if he wanted to, gotten away with not doing that all at the high school level and still been an all-state, all-world player.
“He’s in that 1%. We’ve been blessed here at Nazareth, (that we have) produced a lot of Division 1, high caliber football players, and he’s in that 1% of kids. He’s at the top.”
Budmayr spoke similarly.
“He’s always been a winner, he’s always been a performer, wherever he’s gone,” Budmayr said.
Now, it’s time to see if what Budmayr says will apply at Michigan. McCarthy has a tremendous opportunity on Saturday night, a chance to end the months-long quarterback competition between him and senior quarterback Cade McNamara. If McCarthy can truly deliver on the promise that he is supposed to have, he could make the decision easy for Harbaugh.
Even with such a big opportunity in front of him, Racki and Budmayr stressed time and time again that McCarthy always stays level-headed. It’s not any different now. When asked about how he is feeling with his first collegiate start coming up, McCarthy played it cool.
“I haven’t thought about it too much, to be honest with you,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “I’m always a person that it’s gonna come naturally. No matter what it is. I’m always gonna be ready for it. I’m extremely just hell-bent on being in the present moment.”
McCarthy has the chance to make this moment his own, and his former coaches certainly think he will. But nothing is guaranteed. McCarthy could come out on Saturday and be unimpressive. The Wolverines’ game against Hawaii might not be the McCarthy coronation that seemingly every Michigan fan is envisioning. But it is an opportunity, and that’s all he can ask for.
“That’s what he’s all about, just opportunity, so now he’s getting his opportunity,” Racki said. “And he understands that’s all he ever wanted.”