INDIANAPOLIS — Before the clarity came another dose of confusion.
For the better part of a year, observers of Michigan football have wondered if or when former five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy will supplant Cade McNamara as the starting quarterback.
Some surmised McCarthy would win the job as a true freshman given his mouthwatering potential and McNamara’s modest experience in a pandemic-shortened season. Others assumed the change would come a few games into last season as the Wolverines promised to turn the page and their new coach, Jim Harbaugh, had his compensation halved.
But fall camp came and went with McNamara atop the depth chart. So, too, did a regular season fueled by the pro-McNamara timeshare that propelled U-M to its first Big Ten championship in 17 years. The line of succession blurred because of McNamara’s remaining eligibility: Though he’s now a senior, he never saw the field as a freshman — a potential redshirt — and could still use the extra season granted to all players during the height of COVID-19.
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Yet for a moment on Tuesday, during an hour-long news conference at Big Ten media days, Harbaugh appeared to indicate that McNamara and McCarthy would enter training camp on a level playing field despite the former’s success last season.
“It’s going to be tough for Cade to beat J.J. out,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be tough for J.J. to beat Cade out. Put the balls out there on Aug. 3, and then they’ll have at it.”
His phrasing invited a follow-up question about how McNamara responded to approaching fall camp without being named the starter, an inquiry that caused Harbaugh to bristle: “Who said he wasn’t entering as the starter for fall camp? … I didn’t say he wasn’t the starter.”
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Around and around things went until additional probing backed Harbaugh into a corner, at which point he finally set the stage for what things will look like when the Wolverines begin camp next week: “Yeah, Cade is the starting quarterback. When we line up, first practice, he’ll be with the first team. Now eventually, over the training camp, J.J. will get the same opportunity. He’ll get the same opportunity that Cade will. They’re both gonna get a ton of reps. There will be time to have that competition and determine who the starting quarterback is for the first game.”
In other words, the most dizzying and most consequential storyline of Michigan’s offseason — Harbaugh’s coquetry with the Minnesota Vikings notwithstanding — is going to linger a while longer.
Harbaugh was more forthcoming about the factors that will be used to differentiate between the quarterbacks, some of which seemed to favor the incumbent while others lent themselves to the youthful McCarthy, who is reportedly nearing full health after hardly throwing during spring practice to rest a shoulder injury attributed to overuse.
Harbaugh said the most important criteria is how often each quarterback orchestrates drives that reach the end zone or, at the very least, put points on the board. It’s a percentage the coaching staff tracks and an area where McNamara excels because of his risk-averse decision making. Harbaugh twice referenced McNamara’s success rate of producing points on more than 50% of drives last season during his two news conferences Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Other criteria cited by Harbaugh included taking care of the football to avoid turnovers (advantage McNamara) and playmaking ability at the position (advantage McCarthy). He also expressed optimism about the burgeoning explosiveness of the passing game following the return of star wideout Ronnie Bell, the addition of three highly touted freshmen and a veteran tight end pairing the coaches believe can be the best in the nation (advantage McCarthy).
“I really believe our passing game is going to get even better, too,” Harbaugh said. “I thought it was good (last year). It’s got a chance to be really, really good (this year). … Lean on that as well (as the rushing attack), you know? Be like a pitcher having a great fastball and a great a curve. I think we have the potential for that.”
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It’s a vision shared by McNamara, who was one of four players accompanying Harbaugh in Indianapolis and who spoke to the media earlier Tuesday afternoon. McNamara proudly described an offseason regimen that included personal physical changes and improvements in footwork that have left him feeling more confident throwing the ball than at any point in his U-M career. He beamed when discussing his reconnection with Bell after the pair flashed their chemistry in the first half of last year’s opener against Western Michigan.
But with every few minutes came another variation of a question about McNamara’s relationship with McCarthy or how he’s approaching a quarterback position that feels like it never ends. They were the type of queries McNamara has faced for the better part of a year, since the nationally hyped McCarthy arrived on campus as the cornerstone of Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class.
At least he knows it’s his job to lose.
“I think if you become complacent, you become vulnerable,” McNamara said. “I think this whole entire situation has really helped me in the sense that I have zero complacency as to what my situation is and where I am on the depth chart. If anything, I’m getting better faster than me just sitting in the quarterback room comfortably.”
Contact Michael Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.