Michigan football will start QB Cade McNamara in Week 1, J.J. McCarthy Week 2 in unorthodox plan

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh has named Cade McNamara the team’s starting quarterback — but only for the season opener against Colorado State.

In an appearance on the athletic department’s podcast, Harbaugh said the competition between McNamara and challenger J.J. McCarthy remains inseparable with a week remaining before the team’s first game. The plan he and his coaching staff have devised is for each quarterback to be given a chance to start in Week 1 and Week 2, respectively, before a final decision is made ahead of Michigan's third game against UConn.

“Both quarterbacks have played great,” Harbaugh said in an episode of the podcast published Saturday evening. “Done everything they could have in every way to win the starting job. Coming out of camp I just feel like we have two quarterbacks, Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, that we feel very confident we can win a championship with either of those two quarterbacks behind center. Great thing for our team."

“But there’s only one ball, so there can only be one quarterback out there at a time. We’re not ready to say who that starting quarterback is. But the decision we’ve made is Cade McNamara will start the opener against Colorado State. J.J. McCarthy will start the second ball game against Hawaii. And then after Week 2, we’ll make a decision going into Week 3 on starter/backup.”

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against Georgia during the second half of the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, 2021.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against Georgia during the second half of the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, 2021.

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The announcement comes two days after McNamara was one of five players elected captain in a players-only vote. Harbaugh told reporters in mid-August that it would be obvious to players and coaches alike if one of the quarterbacks pulled ahead of the other, so many assumed the players’ decision to vote for McNamara was a sign of where he stood relative to McCarthy. Nose tackle Mazi Smith even referred to McNamara as the starter and said it's crucial for the person playing quarterback to have the respect of players around him.

But Harbaugh told host Jon Jansen the captaincy won’t factor into the quarterback race because “when it comes to the depth chart, that’s not something that’s elected by the players.”

Instead, Harbaugh outlined a set of criteria on which McNamara and McCarthy will be evaluated in the first two games of the season:

  • Category 1: “The way I’ve been evaluating them is them being able to be a passer, you know?” Harbaugh said. “By passer (I mean) arm talent. Who can make all the throws? Both of them have the arm talent to make all the throws. Then it comes down to accuracy, timing, decision making, taking what the defense gives you as a passer. Cade’s a little bit ahead there, at this point.”

  • Category 2: “Then the next category is playmaker,” Harbaugh said. “The guy that can turn water into wine. Uses his athleticism, his speed, arm talent. Runner, scrambler, plays smart, makes a play when there’s no play to be made. Running ability, moves the chains as a runner, augments the running game. The risk-reward. Turn a one-yard loss into a positive play but doesn’t make the bad play worse. Avoids the fumbles, the interceptions, the sacks. I have J.J. ahead in that category.”

  • Category 3: “And then field general,” Harbaugh said. “Coach on the field, facilitator to the other playmakers and the offensive line, you trust him to handle the ball on every play. He’s a ball protector. He can fix the calls, the formations, the protections, gets the checks right. Leads the unit drive by drive and points per possession, really, is what you’re looking for. A lot of that is — they’re both pretty even there, in that category. Maybe Cade (has) the slight advantage there.”

Based on those factors, Harbaugh described the race as “neck and neck” in terms of what the players have shown in practice. He believes the next phase of the competition should include things like red zone efficiency, two-minute efficiency and third-down efficiency — all of which are more aptly tested during games.

Still, it's fair to wonder if the news of an extended audition came as a shock to McNamara, who spoke with supreme confidence Thursday during his first and only media session of fall camp. McNamara, who also represented the team at Big Ten media days last month, told reporters he was playing the best football of his life and used the outside noise from fans — especially those clamoring for McCarthy to take his job — as fuel for him to work harder and proof that he could fight through adversity.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Cade McNamara on the field before a Sept. 4, 2021 game in Ann Arbor.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Cade McNamara on the field before a Sept. 4, 2021 game in Ann Arbor.

“I feel like the level of play I’m playing at is very high right now in terms of where I’ve been in my career,” McNamara said. “I for sure have gotten much better than I was this time last year, or even at the end of the season last year. I’ve recognized that, and obviously my teammates have as well.”

True as those things might be, Harbaugh’s comments suggest he and the coaches remain unconvinced after nearly a month of camp. They need live action to finalize one of the season's most important decisions.

That means McNamara has one game to prove he's worthy of leading Michigan toward a Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff, two things he's already done.

But against McCarthy, a former five-star prospect and jewel of Harbaugh's 2021 recruiting class, it might not be enough.

“Both are considered starters here, and that’s it,” Harbaugh said. “The only motive here, the only intent is what’s best for the 2022 Michigan football team.”

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: Cade McNamara to start Week 1, J.J. McCarthy Week 2