Heading into spring practices in advance of this season, many outside the Michigan program believed that the Wolverines had a quarterback controversy on their hands. With junior Cade McNamara only having a couple games under his belt, in an aberration of a season no less, and with true freshman JJ McCarthy coming into Ann Arbor on an enormous hype train, the battlefield seemed set.
There was certainly some level of competition, but it was not long lived. Michigan football named McNamara its starter under center during those spring practices, and he has firmly held the role since.
Heading into the season, no one within the Wolverine program appeared to be questioning the ordering of the quarterback depth chart. McNamara was receiving an abundance of compliments from his teammates and coaches, each praising his work ethic and leadership ability.
No one felt that McNamara was incapable of succeeding in or undeserving of the starting role, but his quarterbacks coach’s statements on why McNamara earned the position seem to hint at a tacit understanding of the junior’s limitations.
“Cade is really impressive in his ability to make decisions, to see things, to do the right thing,” quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said Sept. 1. “He has experience in the offense, he’s played in games before. So, all of those things are impressive, and we feel like we can win with him.”
These compliments are all well and good, but what is absent within them is quite telling. Specifically, there was no comment about arm talent, no comment about accuracy, no comment about explosiveness or the ability to take over the game.
In fact, Weiss made comments to the contrary of that final point when discussing expectations for McNamara heading into week one.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any secret to [what McNamara needs to do],” Weiss said. “He’s got to do what he’s been doing all spring and all fall — go through his progressions, be true to the reads. He doesn’t have to go out and win the game for us, he just has to do his job. That’s been the focus when we talk to those guys, and that’s what we expect him to do on Saturday at 12 o’clock.”
These statements are not explicitly or implicitly negative, per se, they are just the compliments and messages a coach would provide to a system quarterback, rather than a special talent.
Weiss really typified this idea in another compliment that he gave McNamara.
“He’s the type of guy who will surprise people and end up playing past college football,” Weiss said.
The word “surprise” is important here, that comment is particularly interesting given that no one would even think about making it to McCarthy. For McCarthy, a career past college football, and a long one at that, is the expectation. The only surprise would be if the freshman didn’t end up on an NFL roster in three or four years.
After two dominant wins, Michigan coaches have no reason to reevaluate their starting quarterback position, but the difference in verbiage used with McNamara and McCarthy begs the question of if that will change in the future.
After all, the comments that coaches, including offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, have made about McCarthy are very different.
“You just try not to overcoach it,” Gattis said of the instinctual talent that spurred McCarthy’s 69-yard touchdown throw against Western Michigan. “ You know he has that special talent.”
In just one comment, Gattis explained the other side of the coin in terms of quarterback compliments. Even though they have no reason to question McNamara’s spot in the lineup, it is clear that those in the Wolverines’ facility see McCarthy in a different, and more special light.
Against Washington, McNamara threw for only 44 yards and no touchdowns while completing just seven of 15 pass attempts. He didn’t need to do anything more than that with the run game clicking so well, but the praise he received from coach Jim Harbaugh after such a middling statistical performance is alarming.
“He does a tremendous job, and he executed pretty darn well,” Harbaugh said Sept. 13. “A couple things, nobody plays a perfect game, but there’s more things to coach. I thought he turned in another really solid performance.”
There was no reason for Harbaugh to rag on his quarterback after a 31-10 win, but the performance really didn’t look all that solid.
And, as such, the question remains open: what would McCarthy have been able to do in that game?
It’s not like the offense would’ve flipped on its head and abandoned a successful run-game, but McCarthy throwing for only 44 yards feels unfathomable.
As long as Michigan keeps winning, McCarthy’s time won’t be coming soon, but, if the comments from coaches are anything to go off of, it will look significantly different than McNamara’s time does now.