Why quarterback J.J. McCarthy raises Michigans College Football Playoff ceiling

  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

On Aug. 27, Michigan hinted at how it would build on its breakthrough 2021 season. It came in the form of a tweet titled “QB Update” and began with this tease: “We have made a decision.”

Coach Jim Harbaugh had not decided the team’s starting quarterback, but rather on an in-season competition to determine his QB1. Cade McNamara, who led Michigan to its first outright Big Ten championship since 2003 and the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance, would start the opener against Colorado State. J.J. McCarthy, the decorated recruit who had backed up McNamara in 2021, would start Week 2 against Hawai’i. Heading into Week 3, a final decision about the starting quarterback would be made.

But by simply delaying the decision, Michigan had shown its hand. In years past, a returning quarterback starter who had beaten Ohio State and won the Big Ten wouldn’t have to reinterview for his job. There would be no debate. McNamara had managed the offense well, didn’t make many mistakes and had his teammates’ respect. But McCarthy was a superior talent with a higher ceiling. For Michigan to take the next, difficult step, he had to take the snaps.

“That’s been the position they’ve just not been elite,” a Big Ten coach said. “He changes that.”

McCarthy emerged from the mini competition as the victor, and has helped No. 5 Michigan to a 6-0 start entering this week’s home showdown against No. 10 Penn State. The sophomore leads the country in accuracy (completing 78.3% of his passes) and has avoided mistakes (one interception in 120 pass attempts), while operating a conservative passing game (192 pass yards per game). Used mostly as a situational quarterback in 2021, McCarthy is now doing more each week, albeit against very manageable competition (only one Michigan opponent currently has a winning record).

How far can McCarthy take Michigan this season? Coaches and analysts weighed in on the young QB, what they’ve seen so far and what he must improve on if the Wolverines want to defend their Big Ten title, and possibly go deeper into the postseason.

ESPN rated McCarthy as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 25 overall player in the 2021 class, making him the most decorated QB prospect in the Harbaugh era, and Michigan’s highest-ranked QB since Ryan Mallett in 2007 (ESPN’s No. 12 recruit that year). McCarthy not only has arm strength and intelligence but elusiveness, a component Michigan hadn’t magnified in its quarterbacks under Harbaugh.

Last year, Michigan mined McCarthy’s mobility. In eight appearances against Big Ten opponents, including the conference championship game, McCarthy had 21 rushes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, and 30 pass attempts for 263 yards and three touchdowns. He made mistakes — two interceptions and a key lost fumble against Michigan State during Michigan’s only regular-season loss. But he operated only a sliver of the playbook.

“J.J.’s special,” a Big Ten coach said. “He’ll make a mistake or two because he’s young, but he’s so athletic. He does everything they did before, just better.”

On Sept. 10, McCarthy completed 11 of 12 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start against Hawai’i, a performance Harbaugh called “near flawless.” But Michigan has generally brought him along gradually, relying on star running back Blake Corum (735 rush yards, 11 touchdowns) and a talented offensive line.

“The Corum kid is a stud, [Donovan] Edwards is lightning fast, and the O-line’s the best it’s been for a while,” a Big Ten coach said. “Because they’re so good in the run game, [McCarthy] doesn’t have to carry them.”

Coaches say Michigan’s passing scheme has been designed to ease McCarthy into the role.

“They get into a lot of stacks and bunches and stuff like that, rub routes, pick routes, working all of those to create some easy throws for him,” a Big Ten defensive coordinator said. “He does a good job. He’s just not a great thrower yet.”

In Michigan’s first five games, McCarthy completed 86% of his passes within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage, accounting for 45.2% of his pass yards. Although all six of his touchdowns came on passes 10 or more yards downfield, his accuracy fell off to 57%, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

After averaging 19.1 yards per attempt against Hawai’i, McCarthy’s average dropped to 8.5 yards per attempt in the Big Ten opener against Maryland, and then 6.5 yards the following week against Iowa, before going back up to 8.4 yards last week against Indiana.

“They’re not throwing the whole playbook at him,” said Jon Jansen, the former Michigan offensive lineman who works as the team’s radio analyst. “They’re building on what they do against [each opponent] and putting in a few extra wrinkles. They’re not overloading, which I think is huge for a young quarterback.”

An opposing defensive coordinator added: “He’s efficient. Harbaugh ain’t a dumb dude. He knows what the kid does well and he creates those throws for him. That’s good coaching.”

McCarthy’s decision-making has jumped out to Jansen. On Michigan’s opening drive against Iowa, McCarthy looked for wide receiver Ronnie Bell streaking down the numbers. Bell was open, but Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean had moved toward the inside of the route. Rather than risk a possible interception against a defense that last season led the nation with 25, McCarthy threw toward Bell’s back shoulder.

The pass went incomplete but Bell would score two plays later on an end around. On the Fox broadcast, analyst Joel Klatt praised McCarthy for making “the proper throw.”

“Most people are looking at that going, ‘It wasn’t a very accurate throw, it’s just an incomplete pass,’ but what he did was save a turnover,” Jansen said. “Being able to put together a methodical drive against Iowa really shows the growth and patience.”

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo wants to see more of those plays from McCarthy, noting “incompletions are OK, interceptions aren’t.” DiNardo has seen McCarthy struggle when pressured in the pocket, which he said is normal for a young quarterback but also notable this week. Penn State has pressured quarterbacks on 85 plays, more than all but five FBS teams.

Through Michigan’s first six games, McCarthy wasn’t pressured often (14 plays) but completed only 50% of his passes for 72 yards, while taking four sacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When not pressured, McCarthy has completed 81% of his passes with eight touchdowns and one interception.

“His problem is when he’s in the pocket and he’s under pressure, he’s not very good yet,” DiNardo said. “He’s fabulous throwing the ball on the run, because he can just kind of flick it, he’s got a really strong arm. So there’s no ceiling for him. I just think he’s really really young.

“[Penn State] defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will give him all he can handle Saturday.”

The best elements of McCarthy’s game this season have come when he’s on the move. Through Michigan’s first five games, he had a QBR of 97 on throws outside the pocket, completing 88% of his attempts with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

On third-and-8 against Iowa, McCarthy evaded talented pass-rusher Lukas Van Ness, moved to his right and rifled a touchdown pass to Edwards in the back of the end zone.

“When you see that, I don’t care what kind of defense you have, whatever you’re ranked, that’s just a guy doing things that you can’t scheme against,” said Greg Holcomb, McCarthy’s private quarterback trainer.

“Off he goes, he drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it, or throws it, to an open guy!” Harbaugh said afterward. “Man, I love it. I just love it, love it.”

Michigan has incorporated more elements into its offense to emphasize McCarthy’s strengths. The Wolverines have used more spread sets with four wide receivers and quick passes to the flat. Holcomb saw Michigan incorporate a run-pass option bubble with McCarthy against Iowa, a definitive new wrinkle in the scheme.

“You can see the called rollouts, where you get him outside the pocket, already he gets a better view of what’s going on down the field, you change the launch point of the quarterback,” Jansen said.

Harbaugh recently compared McCarthy to a younger version of himself because of his willingness to never give up on a play.

“I dance a real fine line of not taking his special talent and overcoaching it,” Harbaugh said. “I do not want him to be a victim of overcoaching. So when it’s all said and done, it’s just, ‘Do you J.J., play your game.’ It’s really good. Just protect the ball.”

Last week against Indiana, McCarthy recorded his first career 300-yard passing game, while adding 26 rush yards on four carries. But Michigan isn’t transforming its offensive approach just yet, especially with McNamara sidelined since Week 3 because of a lower-leg injury.

“Two things prevent them from using [McCarthy] as much as they would like to in the run game,” DiNardo said. “The formations don’t lend themselves to it. It’s hard to run those spread option plays from tight formations. The second thing is they don’t want to get him hurt. There was a game he ran out of bounds twice, and was clearly coached. He wasn’t afraid of contact.

“They’d like to use him in the option game, they probably would need him against Penn State, but it’s a fine line.”

The question is when McCarthy reaches a point where Michigan can feel comfortable leaning on his entire skill set.

“They’re just scratching the surface on what they can do with him,” Holcomb said. “He’s a super special talent.”

Holcomb, who runs the Next Level Athletix quarterback training program outside Chicago, noticed McCarthy’s talent when they began working together in the summer before McCarthy entered seventh grade. McCarthy’s arm strength popped but also his agility and balance, which Holcomb attributes to his success in hockey.

They focused much of their training on off-platform throws, popularized by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and others, where quarterbacks move one direction and throw back across the field.

“I call them, ‘Oh, crap’ throws,” Holcomb said. “When you’re throwing it, the coach puts his hands on his head and is like, ‘Oh, crap,’ and then you complete it and he starts clapping, going, ‘All right, good job, good job.’ We train that way. He’s got the guts to attempt ’em and he’s got the skill level to complete ’em.”

McCarthy proved it in his collegiate debut last year against Western Michigan. On third-and-26, McCarthy wriggled free of a defender, slid to his left, set his feet and launched an across-the-field throw to Daylen Baldwin for a 69-yard touchdown, the first of his career.

“That’s just a different throw that normal cats don’t make,” Holcomb said. “I’m really excited to see more of those kinds of opportunities and plays from him.”

Those who have faced or observed McCarthy agree that the biggest jump in his game must come with downfield passes. Through six games, he has only 13 completions of 20 yards or more, tied for 92nd nationally. Jansen and DiNardo both cited multiple plays against Maryland and Iowa where McCarthy missed open receivers on deep routes for likely touchdowns.

“If you look at all of his targets and his completions, they’re all kind of bubble, slant, quick-game stuff, very few down-the-field balls,” an opposing coach said. “Our thing was, ‘Let’s challenge him to throw it down the field and see if he can make those throws.'”

Penn State likely will take a similar approach, while applying more pressure than previous Michigan opponents. The Nittany Lions blitz on first down 37% of the time, and have been able to generate pressure on nearly 30% of dropbacks while sending four or fewer rushers.

They aren’t a volume sacks team but have forced 12 turnovers in five games, while ranking 12th nationally in opposing passer rating.

“I really want him to be able to catch the ball in that shotgun position and decide really even before the ball is snapped where I’m going to go,” Jansen said. “It’s reading the defense and who’s going to be open because you’re not going to have as long to be able to hold that ball and escape the pocket. You’ve got to make that decision quick.”

McCarthy understands he must improve on deep balls, and noted that he’s still working back from a throwing shoulder injury that limited his throwing through spring practice.

“I’m starting to gain my strength back,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “My hips are more mobile. Just being able to get back into that rhythm again, and not feel like I need to put my all into a throw, realize I have a strong arm, just focus on it, see the ball through the throw and deliver it to them.

“The guys have been doing great getting open. I’ve just got to put the ball on them.

Penn State undoubtedly will heat up McCarthy, especially when Michigan passes on first down, but Nittany Lions coach James Franklin doesn’t expect the sophomore to flinch.

“Part of his poise is confidence in his athleticism,” Franklin said. “He feels like he can stand in there. If he gets pressure, he runs well enough to run away from most people and avoid hits. He’s able to run for a first down on the sideline, step out of bounds, but keep people on their heels. That confidence comes from his accuracy, that confidence comes from his athleticism, and that confidence comes from staying ahead of the sticks.”

While some are lukewarm on McCarthy’s play so far, and want to see him against better competition, they still acknowledge his potential, especially as an athlete. DiNardo called the sophomore an “over-the-top” talent with “no ceiling.”

Michigan eventually must tap into all of McCarthy’s strengths to get back to the CFP, and ultimately advance. After a safe and successful start to the McCarthy era, the time has come to take off the training wheels. McCarthy this week noted that what Michigan has shown so far is “not matching up with our potential and where we should be, and where we’re going to be.”

“I’m sure there’s some ‘aha’ moments in that coaches’ room, where they’re like, ‘We could do some things that maybe we haven’t done in the past,'” Holcomb said. “The United States is about to really, truly see him take off, as they start to evolve their offense.”

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