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During one of Michigan’s September home games, J.J. McCarthy glanced towards the student section and saw a group of fans with “I heart JJ” painted across their chests. 

For McCarthy, that level of devotion is almost ordinary. A five-star freshman quarterback, McCarthy stayed committed to Michigan last fall even amidst the throes of the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, while the program floundered and uncertainty swirled. McCarthy and Donovan Edwards, a five-star freshman running back, were heralded as the duo that would rescue the program from the depths of the abyss and bring it back to national relevance. 

All of that hype seemingly places McCarthy and Edwards in an odd in-between. Michigan, 6-0 and ranked eighth in the country, is off to its best start since 2016. A year that began with minimal expectations has quickly stirred the imagination. 

So for McCarthy and Edwards, undoubtedly the pillars of the future, the present situation requires a whole lot of patience. 

“I know eventually my time will come,” Edwards said on Tuesday. “And then when my time comes, I just can’t look back at other things from the past. Just gotta stay in the present moment and stay focused.” 

McCarthy likened the situation to a story he heard from his pastor in chapel. The tale goes as follows: A kid brings a guitar pick to a 15,000-person concert for one of his favorite bands. Mid-concert, the band stops playing and asks the audience if anyone knows one of their songs. The band then picks the kid out of the crowd, inviting him onstage to play the song — a feat he can accomplish because he brought the guitar pick. 

“That analogy to me really stuck, because we’re doing everything here we possibly can do to get in the game, but we’re not expecting to get in the game,” McCarthy said. “We’re ready to go no matter what. We’ve got our guitar pick in our pocket and we’ll be ready to go when our number is called.” 

McCarthy and Edwards are taking the initiative to make their words stick. Two weeks ago, after Michigan returned to Ann Arbor following its thrashing of Wisconsin, McCarthy and Edwards, along with freshman receiver Andrel Anthony, went to the practice field to run routes and build chemistry. They did so again this past week, at 4:30 in the morning after getting back from Lincoln, Neb. 

“I even took a picture of it, it meant that much to me,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on Oct. 4. “It’s that kind of group.” 

Added Edwards: “We just want to get better. Whenever our time comes, we want to be prepared for the opportunity and seize the moment.” 

That moment has come infrequently for the pair this season. McCarthy has seen more playing time as of late, emerging as a complement to junior quarterback Cade McNamara, entering the game as a run-first option that gives opposing defenses a different look.

“We’re blessed to have really talented players who can play at a high level,” quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said on Oct. 6. “I think (in) a lot of places, J.J. would probably be the starting quarterback, but we have the luxury where we don’t have to throw him in the fire right away. And we are trying to play him whenever we get that opportunity so that he can develop. Obviously, we want our backup quarterback ready to play whenever he’s called upon. The best way to do that is to play him when we can.” 

The same applies to Edwards. He remains a distant third in the running back rotation, trailing the talented duo of sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins. And yet, the coaching staff has emphasized a need to make Edwards a more prominent part of the backfield mixture. 

And for two players who have been in the spotlight their entire careers, the new roles require an adjustment. As McCarthy put it, he’s “been kinda the guy” all his career, from peewee football through high school. 

Now, though, he’s shifted his mindset. He’s taken a reverence to McNamara, emulating both his preparation and leadership. Edwards is doing the same with Corum and Haskins — attempting to mirror Haskins’s physicality and Corum’s explosiveness. 

So for now, nothing more than complementary pieces, McCarthy and Edwards bide their time until they are the faces of the program. The future is just that, and they’re OK with it. 

“We’re chasing greatness, that’s what we’re doing,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been chasing that since we were youngins.”