J.J. McCarthy’s torrid start to the season hit its first speed bump Saturday against Maryland.
At times, the sophomore phenom shined under center. On other plays, he struggled, overthrowing receivers on a number of deep balls and fumbling the football twice.
When asked to assess McCarthy’s performance Wednesday, Michigan quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss did so through the lens of Saturday being McCarthy’s “first full football game” at the college level. In that vein, he says, ups and downs are the norm.
“I think he did a good job,” Weiss said. “… At the same time, I’m sure J.J. would tell you, there’s a lot of stuff that we can clean up. And we’re focused on the process. We love everything about J.J. and the way he goes about it. There’s so many things that we can fix and work on and so to come away from it, even though he did make mistakes, we’re encouraged because it’s all fixable stuff.”
When it comes to McCarthy making corrections, Weiss placed much of the onus on himself and the Wolverines’ coaching staff. McCarthy is defined by an unrelenting drive to be the best version of himself; he is a perfectionist. It’s up to Weiss, amongst others, to best equip McCarthy to attain that level of play.
At the moment, ball security is a primary area of focus. McCarthy lamented both of his fumbles after the game Saturday, maintaining that those are the two plays he wanted back. Ball security marks a somewhat alarming carry-over from last season’s cameos, too.
It’s a bit more difficult, though, for quarterbacks to work on ball security in practice, since they are designated as non-contact. Looking for a solution, McCarthy approached Weiss this week and asked if the defense could punch out the ball during practice.
Weiss referred to the request as “classic J.J.”
“It’s kind of like, ‘J.J., it’s not the best idea to have him punching at your throwing arm and your hand while you’re running through the defense,’” Weiss said. “So we’re not going to do that, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to fix it. And we’re gonna help him. At the same time, he’s improving in every area and we have no concern about him going forward whatsoever.”
The humorous anecdote encapsulates McCarthy’s demeanor. It matches that of Weiss, too.
Take McCarthy’s overthrows against Maryland, for instance. On four separate occasions, McCarthy overshot a receiver on would-be touchdowns, missing the opportunity to turn the close game into a blowout. Afterwards, McCarthy took responsibility, noting that his arm — following offseason rehabilitation for a lingering shoulder injury — finally felt “110%.”
Weiss, on the other hand, blamed himself.
“If we’re missing the receiver in the game, then there’s something that we’re not doing right in practice,” Weiss said. “We can certainly throw the ball better, and that’s something that hopefully will show up for us. As we go forward, it’s one of the many things that we want to improve.”
McCarthy’s performance drew more scrutiny than he has faced at any point this season. But his statline — 18-for-26 with 220 yards and two touchdowns — could have read much differently, contingent on just a couple of plays.
“You could look at it and say, ‘If we connect on those deep balls, he throws for 400 yards and he has four touchdowns,’” Weiss said. “But that’s not the reality that we live in. He didn’t connect on them. So just like we’re looking at a throw that could have been an interception, we’re looking at the throws that could have been touchdowns and we’re coaching the process, not the outcome.”
The reality that Michigan lives in, then, is one in which McCarthy is constantly learning.
A stiff test awaits Saturday against a fierce Iowa defense — one that Harbaugh heaped praise on earlier this week, and one that Weiss lauded for its NFL-level talent Wednesday. A raucous road environment looms at Kinnick Stadium, the home of McCarthy’s first road start as a Wolverine.
Iowa’s defense thrives off turnovers and, specifically, the opposition’s mistakes. That thrusts McCarthy’s fumbling woes further into the limelight.
“We know that we have to take care of the ball,” Weiss said, referring to the offense as a whole. “We want to take care of the ball every week, but this week, I mean, that’s how they win games, right? It’s one of our biggest goals in this game, to end every drive with a kick and take care of the football.”
Much of that presides with McCarthy, whose ongoing growth will meet another crucible Saturday.