How J.J. McCarthy Is Staying Ready For His Opportunity At Michigan
Often times in college football, the backup quarterback is one of the most clamored-for players on the team. That applies a thousand-fold for Michigan Wolverines true freshman J.J. McCarthy, a former five-star recruit that fans are eager to see on the field.
McCarthy, who is the QB2 behind junior Cade McNamara, has felt the love from the fanbase but wants them to know he's a regular person just like anyone else.
“It’s awesome because I feel like me being committed for so long and being loyal to this university and to this program has been huge for the fans," McCarthy said during a Tuesday night media session. "I love the heck out of them. It’s one of those things where it’s treating others like you want to be treated. I feel like that might have something to do with it, but I hear a little bit for sure, definitely around campus.
"But I try to let everybody know I’m just as normal as you. We’re all human beings here and I just try to develop relationships with the fans as much as possible.”
McCarthy may have the look of a fresh-faced, regular college student, but he carries much more weight than that on his shoulders. He has been labeled as the type of quarterback that could take Michigan to the next level in terms of championship contention. The talent has been apparent when he is on the field, but he still has to wait his turn behind McNamara.
McCarthy said he is not just waiting for his shot. He is staying ready for it when his number is called. The same is true for freshman running back Donovan Edwards, another talented prospect linked to the Wolverines' future success.
“100%. In chapel, (the pastor) was talking about a story of a kid at a concert," he recollected. "Before he left to go to the concert, he brought his guitar pick with him. He’s going to a concert with 10,000 other people, 15,000 other people. He’s got that guitar pick in his pocket the whole time, and what do you know? The band asked, ‘Who knows this song? Come up and play this song.’ And he was picked out of the crowd and had his guitar pick.
"That analogy stuck because we are doing everything we possibly can to get in the game, but we’re not expecting to get in the game. We’re just knowing that we’re ready no matter what. We’ve got our guitar pick in our pocket and we’ll be ready to go when our number is called.”
Despite being lower than McNamara in the quarterback pecking order, the two signal-callers have a strong relationship. McCarthy is soaking up everything he can learn from Michigan's current starter.
“My relationship with Cade has been really awesome," he said. "It’s been really unique and something that I have never experienced before. I’ve been kind of 'the guy' all my career. Cade is someone I look up to as far as preparation and how he is as a leader. I’ve been doing a lot of observing of how he is around the team and the coaches and it’s been really good for me.”
Until this past weekend, McNamara had not taken a sack or thrown an interception all year. McCarthy shared why he belives that's the case and what he has learned from that.
“This guy does a great job of managing our offense and getting the ball out quickly and making the right decisions," McCarthy said. "The sacks thing, that’s the offensive line. That o-line is unbelievable. They work their butts off. Coach (Sherrone) Moore is a great coach. A great offensive coach. The way that Cade prepares himself is what sets him apart in exactly that. He knows where to go when he’s hot. He knows his reads like the back of his hand. That’s contributed hugely to the (limited) sacks.”
McCarthy's role has started to develop, as he is no longer just a quarterback head coach Jim Harbaugh brings in for mop-up duty. He took the first snap of the second half in the Wisconsin game and was on the field for the sixth snap of the showdown at Nebraska. That has been a notable development for McCarthy and his progress.
“It’s been cool," he said. "I’m appreciative the coaches have given me that meaningful experience and getting in there in big-time moments. It was awesome to get that under my belt so early.
“I never really even thought of the redshirts at all," he replied to a later question. "I just came in here wanting to play and wanting to learn and whatever was going to come of that was going to come of that.
McCarthy believes that what he brings when he is on the field goes beyond the arm talent or what he has been able to do with his legs. His competitive fire and desire to win are things he takes pride in.
“I can run the ball very well. I feel like I can throw the ball very well," he said. "But the thing that I bring the most is that I want to win as badly as anyone out there, if not more. My competitiveness is huge and I believe that’s my No. 1 attribute to my game. No matter what it is, I want to make the right reads for the team and win. That’s it. Win the play. Win the down. Win the game.”
Harbaugh's track record at Michigan with quarterback recruits has been well-documented, but he made sure he went out of his way to secure the services of the former five-star passer. McCarthy said his head coach's contact with him throughout the recruiting process is a big reason why he's in Ann Arbor.
“It’s unbelievable. You can take all the football accolades out of his career and his life. Just the man he is, it’s really special," McCarthy said. "He cares more about this game and players than any coach I’ve ever seen so far. I really appreciate him like crazy for the human being he is. The football knowledge, don’t even get me started with that. That guy knows more than… I don’t even know. He knows a lot about the game.
"He was the one to offer me the scholarship. He was already trying to make personal connections with each other. He’s a J.J. as well. He was talking about the similar playing styles from when he was playing and me when I’m playing. It was really cool him making the personal connection right now.”
McCarthy's arm talent has been on display a few times this season, as he has a pair of long touchdown passes to senior wideout Daylen Baldwin. It takes some effort to dial down a young, talented thrower, but McCarthy has not felt the coaching staff put the training wheels on him. They trust him to make plays but be smart on the field.
“He’s been awesome with that," McCarthy said. "When you have a coach that lets you play and do what you do, it opens up so many doors for you and allows you to be creative out there. You see someone like Patrick Mahomes. A lot of guys can’t coach what he does and what he brings to the team is something special and hopefully one day I can get to his point. It’s awesome to know a coach is going to let me play and not confine me in a certain system and limit my capabilities.
“I’ve made some mistakes coming in here and learning experiences on what I can get away with, but they have kind of fine-tuned it down and that’s something I really needed. In those situations when you need to make a play, he’s not putting that thought into my head that I can’t do this. He’s been approaching it awesome.”
McCarthy and some of his freshman teammates, which include Edwards and wide receiver Andrel Anthony, have started a tradition of getting 30-45 minutes of practice in after games. Cristian Dixon joined recently, as well. The session after the Nebraska game took place at 4:30 a.m. after arriving home in Ann Arbor.
“Hopefully, we can get some more guys out there," he said. " It's definitely interesting at 4:30 in the morning out there. It was a cool experience. It was awesome seeing the guys want to get the same work in. We’re chasing greatness. That’s what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter what age we are. We’ve been chasing that since we were youngins.”
McCarthy helped keep the 2021 class together when things got rough with the program at the end of 2020. He feels the foundation has been set for a special future.
“It’s so exciting. I love this class," he said. "From guys like Donovan (Edwards) to the walk-ons, we have such a strong core that is really special. We’re so tight-knit. We’re all here for the right reasons and it’s going to be a lot of fun in the coming years to see how we grow as a group. The mindset is there. The physicality is there. The chemistry is there. It’s an awesome class. I really love it.”
For now, the focus is being a part that of a team that already has championship aspirations. McCarthy feels the culture positioning itself for a special run down the stretch.
“What I’ve taken out of these last few weeks is the team coming together. This team atmosphere that’s going on in this building right now is really special. I haven’t been here in the past, but I know that it’s different this year.
"It’s one of those chemistries and comradery that build championship teams. It’s been really special these last couple of weeks.”
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