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Niyo: Touted UM QB J.J. McCarthy content to wait in the wings — for now

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Ann Arbor — J.J. McCarthy says he understands his role. And as the backup quarterback at Michigan — at least for now — the highly touted freshman says he’s more than comfortable with all of it. Even the attention he sheepishly says he tries not to notice.

“I don’t want to say that I have,” McCarthy explained Tuesday night, laughing after a bye-week practice for the Wolverines, who are off to a 6-0 start and a top-10 national ranking. “But I saw these kids paint their chests before a game … 

And, well, the message was hard to ignore.

“They had an ‘I’ and a heart and ‘J.J..’” McCarthy said of his not-so-secret admirers. “I made sure I hit ‘em up after to say I appreciate them and love them, too.”

Everybody loves the backup quarterback. That’s universal in football. But in McCarthy’s case, as the five-star recruit and centerpiece of Jim Harbaugh’s latest recruiting class in Ann Arbor, it’s also inevitable, this clamoring from the fans and the questions from the media and the conflicts it can create for a coaching staff.

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Winning buys everyone time, in that regard. And especially Cade McNamara, the redshirt sophomore who was named Michigan’s starter well in advance of last month’s season opener and has done little, if anything, to make the coaches second-guess his No. 1 standing. The Wolverines are still undefeated and rolling, coming off consecutive road wins in the Big Ten, and McNamara has done just about everything he’s been asked to do.

Just ask McCarthy about that.

“This guy does a great job of managing our offense, getting the ball out quick, making the right decisions,” he said.

And even when he hasn’t, McNamara has responded well. He missed on a few deep throws Saturday night at Nebraska, and he made a poor decision on the interception he threw in the third quarter, hand-delivering the Cornhuskers the lead and Michigan its first deficit all season.

But the Wolverines rallied from behind twice in the fourth quarter to win, and Harbaugh was effusive in his praise for his starter afterward. Particularly with how McNamara responded to what was the first interception of his career, and the only one he’s thrown in 190 attempts over 10 games at Michigan, including eight starts. Which is a stat, by the way, that McCarthy’s probably not ready to replicate right now, at least in the coaches’ eyes.

“I’ve always thought that was one of the huge tests for any quarterback,” Harbaugh said of McNamara’s moxie. “After they throw an interception, do they have the ability on the next possession to drive the offense for points? I mean, right there, in a nutshell, you can tell so much about any quarterback.”

Harbaugh doubled down on that, insisting McNamara played “one of his best games if not his best game” in the win at Nebraska, though Pro Football Focus rated it his worst of the season.

Still, the questions will persist, especially as fans keep getting glimpses of the future in McCarthy, who clearly has the “it” factor, as Harbaugh says. He also has some athletic traits that McNamara simply doesn’t, which has given the coaching staff an easier route to getting the freshman involved early this season. They’re using his running ability to add a different element with zone reads and they’re using the spot duty to help get him prepared for much, much more down the line.

“Definitely want to keep playing J.J. as much as possible,” Harbaugh said. “Kinda look back on some other years and ask, ‘Did we get the backup quarterback enough reps? Did we have him ready for when we really needed him?’”

Those were rhetorical questions, but the answer is that they didn’t. Not in 2017, when Michigan shuffled through three quarterbacks, largely due to an injury to starter Wilton Speight. And probably not the next two seasons, either, as backup Dylan McCaffrey missed significant time due to a concussion and a broken collarbone.  

McCarthy, for his part, has played in four of the Wolverines’ first six games, seeing extended time with 20-plus snaps in each of the lopsided wins over Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. But the freshman was in for key plays throughout the games against Wisconsin and Nebraska. And while the results have been mixed, at times, the message seems clear: There’s more to come.

How much, though? And how soon?

Video: UM QB J.J. McCarthy on fan support
Michigan backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy said he has "kind of" heard the fan support.
Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

McCarthy relayed a story the team chaplain, Robby Emery, told a group of players recently, about a kid who brought a guitar pick to a concert and ended up on stage when the band asked for a volunteer from the crowd. He and some of his freshman teammates are taking that message to heart, apparently.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to get in the game, but we’re not expecting to get in the game,” McCarthy said. “We just know 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’s called.”

To that point, it’s probably worth noting that of the top 10 quarterback recruits nationally in the 2021 class, according to 247 Sports composite rankings, only one has taken more snaps this season than McCarthy, who has been on the field for 60 plays through six games. That’s Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams, who led the Sooners’ huge comeback win over Texas last weekend, replacing starter Spencer Rattler, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite who’d committed a pair of first-half turnovers. Prior to the Texas game, Williams had been used primarily in short-yardage situations — not unlike McCarthy — and 50 of his 77 snaps this season came in Saturday’s win.

So throwing a true freshman into the fire immediately is more the exception than the rule, especially for a Power 5 team that finds itself in the spot the Wolverines do now, with huge tests looming just ahead — at Michigan State, at Penn State, and of course against Ohio State.

And while McCarthy will be the first to tell you this is a strange feeling, playing the apprentice role —  “It’s something I’ve never experienced before, because I’ve been kind of the guy all my career,” he said — the freshman certainly isn’t sulking about it.

In fact, by all accounts, he’s making the most of it. For example, when the Wolverines returned home from Lincoln in the wee hours of Sunday morning, McCarthy didn’t go straight to bed. First, he headed out on the practice field with a few of his freshman teammates — Donovan Edwards, Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon — to get in some extra work for about 45 minutes without coaches. 

“It was definitely interesting at 4:30 a.m. out there,” he said, smiling. “But it was awesome seeing the guys wanting to get the same work. And, really, we’re chasing greatness, that’s what we’re doing.”

And for now, all they seem to know for sure is that they'll get there in time.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo