'Is JJ gonna win the Elite 11?'
SI All-American spent several days in Tennessee this summer for the most prestigious quarterback competition at the prep level and our tally had Michigan commitment JJ McCarthy neck and neck with No. 1 prospect Caleb Williams for its crown.
The Michigan commitment was the only other passer to finish in the top six of each daily ranking before Williams got the nod from the event staff.
'Man I can't wait to see what he does at IMG,' SIAA's staff followed up.
We now know that answer, too. McCarthy led the Ascenders to a perfect 8-0 record despite a pandemic, national schedule and plenty of attention on every single snap to cap a prolific prep career that already included a state championship and gaudy numbers.
The offense put up at least 41 points per game and the future Wolverine didn't toss a single interception along the way. Those numbers increase in impression once the anatomy of most of the IMG Academy play calls is revealed by head coach Bobby Acosta.
"JJ had the freedom," he said. "On third down, he called 50% of the offense all year. I gave him a call called 'double 99' and he had about five or six plays to choose from. Whenever he was hot he would call a whole drive.
"I don't know how many high school teams are doing that -- where the quarterback calls the majority of the offense."
Where Acosta and several others around the IMG program were even more impressed with the Illinois native is how he handled everything beyond the field of play. When digging on leadership, character and other non-football traits, it's hard to find a negative or even a typical critique.
Even before McCarthy's move to campus in Bradenton, Florida ahead of the 2020 season, he would be thrust into position with a bevy of fellow elite recruits -- and still expected to ascend to 'face of the program' status sooner rather than later.
The senior did it like the rest of the world attempted to this year, through technology.
"We did Zoom meetings with the offense and he took the leadership role there," Acosta said. "I would teach him the offense a couple days before and then he would teach it to the entire group. I think the fact that he understood his craft and mastered his craft, that gave a lot of credibility for him to be a leader right away."
The ascent began as fast-learning combined with application to the rest of the group, but when the team was able to prepare in person it translated to high-demand qualities like mood stabilization, accountability and discipline according to the towering Alabama offensive tackle commitment protecting his blind side all year long.
"JJ is a great leader, always lifts us up and once we are he keeps us going," JC Latham said. "But also holds us to being humble. I couldn't ask for anyone better than that in character or as a teammate."
McCarthy had a similar affect on the coaches at IMG, including the head man in Acosta. He was hired in part for his offense-first approach thanks to many collegiate stops on that side of the football.
During nationally-televised games or others against noted state champion programs, he would use McCarthy as a sound board of sorts beyond helping or actually calling the plays in certain situations.
"I gave him the keys to the offense and he ran with it," Acosta said. "The biggest thing people don't see is his leadership. He can pull a bunch of guys from all over the place and really get them performing at a higher level.
"He's so mature that I used to bounce a lot off of him."
Acosta cited several examples but two paint a clear picture in relation to the feel the QB has in relation to the pulse of the program.
The offense had been rolling, as usual, and when it came time to give the game ball to him (or another star) the QB deferred not only to an underclassman, but a scout team player who gave the group a good look during the week.
"Kids practiced a lot harder after that," Acosta said.
Later in the year the IMG defense, just as talented but a much younger unit comparatively, needed a spark. The coach asked McCarthy to try and hype the group up in between series and the pupil countered once again.
'Let it come to them, they'll find the spark.'
They did and the defense proved more consistent the rest of the way.
"He's going to be very successful going to Michigan," Acosta closed with. He's not the only Ascender heading to Ann Arbor in the 2021 recruiting class.
The timing of McCarthy and IMG center Greg Crippen heading to UM may be ideal considering perception around the program and its head man in Jim Harbaugh.
Latham, who grew up in Big Ten country and began high school football in Wisconsin, says the two commitments share intangible qualities both physically and mentally.
"Him and Greg can turn around Michigan," he said. "Both of them are not only the best at what they do, but they take it very serious and are great people you want as the vocal points of your offense."
Closer to home, the McCarthy praise remains at the program he spent earlier years at in LaGrange Park (Ill.) Nazareth.
Former teammate Tanner Koziol, a Ball State commitment at wide receiver, spent plenty of time with UM's next quarterback recruit before he upped the challenge in the state of Florida.
"On the field he’s a natural leader and leads with his play and his words," he said. "Off the field he’s one of my best friends. He’s got a work ethic like no one else and he’s competitive everywhere. Whether we’re playing Madden or 1v1 basketball he hates to lose.
"He checks every box and he’s great at making something out of nothing and I think that he’s very underrated as a runner."
The nation's No. 3 quarterback prospect is expected to enroll at Michigan in January.
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