For most of J.J. McCarthy’s first appearance with the Michigan football team, there wasn’t much to talk about.
The freshman quarterback started off fine, completing three of his first five passes for 11 yards. On his third attempt, he completed a nice dart over the middle to sophomore receiver A.J. Henning for a first down, but the coaches hadn’t really given him an opportunity to show off his arm yet.
Then, he made that play.
In the moments following McCarthy’s 69-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Daylen Baldwin, those watching immediately recognized what made McCarthy one of the nation’s most highly touted players out of high school. In 15 seconds of game time, he escaped a collapsing pocket and, in the face of three Western Michigan defenders, delivered a Mahomes-esque ball that traveled roughly 45 yards through the air to a spot where only Baldwin could catch it.
Prior to that moment, McCarthy had looked like pretty much any other backup quarterback in the Big Ten — decent, but not good enough to set the world on fire.
After it, he emerged as the clear future face of the program.
“I don’t want to ever make him a victim of over-coaching,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday. “… The running to your right, throwing back to your left, he’s got that in him. He’s got that creativity in him, and I’m not gonna coach that out of him.”
That throw stole the show and provided a peek of what’s to come in the next few seasons. On the play, he instantly generated more excitement than the program has had for a future starter in years, and rightfully so.
Truthfully, though, McCarthy’s performance wasn’t even the strongest among the freshmen on the team. That came from linebacker Junior Colson, who saw significant playing time throughout the game, even before the win was secured for the Wolverines. At no point did Colson make the mistakes — blown coverages, missed reads and overcommitments — that typically plague freshman defenders. Though he made just two tackles, he also tallied a key pass breakup and regularly used his athleticism to force the ball into the teeth of the defense.
“(Colson) did really well,” junior defensive back Daxton Hill said. “… Really just reading his keys, whether it’s the quarterback or the running back. I think there was one play, he made a good play to the sideline when the running back came out, and (Colson) deflected it, so he’s reading his keys and doing whatever (linebackers coach George Helow) tells him.”
Freshman linebackers who consistently make the right reads — especially ones with Colson’s athleticism — are incredibly rare. That unique skill set should mean he plays a significant role in defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s system for a long time.
Freshman running back Donovan Edwards also got the opportunity to showcase his abilities late in Saturday’s game, though he didn’t have the same impact as McCarthy and Colson. He tallied a respectable 27 yards on six carries, but his performance overall looked like a true freshman in his first appearance.
“He’s been used to just trying to run everything around everybody all the time,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been a steady process. Saw nothing but north and south out of Donovan (on Saturday). It’s gonna be a matter of time before he breaks one.”
Crucially for all three, the opportunity to play came while Michigan already had an insurmountable lead against a MAC opponent. Without any pressure attached to the moment, McCarthy especially could focus on what he does best and sling the football.
It remains to be seen how that translates against tougher opponents, but early returns indicate that the program’s future is in good hands.