Why Giants potential pick J.J. McCarthy’s NFL Draft rise shouldn’t be a surprise: 'He’s special'

There was a basement inside J.J. McCarthy’s childhood home in La Grange Park, Ill. A section of it dedicated to an assortment of poster boards and whiteboards, propped up for easy access. You could venture down and see notes scribbled across each. Some transcribable, others only translatable for its author.

This was McCarthy’s sanctuary growing up. While other kids finished their high school games and raced home to upload their highlights to social media, the then-Nazareth Academy quarterback would use this time to analyze every aspect of his game.

What mistakes did he make? Was he tipping tendencies? Why did certain plays fail? Was it something he did wrong or the defense did well? How can he combat it next in a similar situation? If it was a teammate’s struggle, how could he help moving forward?

Within a day, the analysis evolved. By Saturday night it included a scouting report on Nazareth’s upcoming opponent — the areas of weakness he uncovered, how the offense could exploit them, and why. He had takeaways of each player on the opposing defense. He’d then jot his thoughts down in a notebook, and the next morning, take them up to school.

Players attending Tim Racki’s Sunday coaches meeting isn’t entirely uncommon, he told SNY. He opens it up for anyone who wants an early look at the game plan. Not once did he experience this, though. Never was a player so prepared, his notes so meticulous. He wasn’t there to sit and listen. He involved himself in the game plan’s creation. He didn’t overstep coaches — never. He was there trying to help. And he did. It wasn’t long before the coaches started to move forward with what McCarthy said — his ideas almost always worked.

Racki brought up McCarthy’s staff meeting contributions to his father, Jim. Jim then sent him a photo of his son’s basement setup (the boards with notes covering every inch), lovingly admitting J.J. was a little crazy. One of those photos piqued Racki’s interest, though. In addition to his film breakdowns and notes on opponents’ tendencies, he noticed what he came to realize was a goal board — everything McCarthy wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t new. It clearly had been there for some time.

In the middle of it all was the NFL shield.

“People ask me if I’m surprised by all this?” Racki said, laughing. “Oh no. I saw it coming.”

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Nazareth Academy is among the more decorated and successful high school football programs in Illinois. They won seven state titles under Racki, who took over in 2005. You don’t accomplish that without pretty good players — 10 have gone on to play Division 1 football. McCarthy, come Thursday night, will become the second drafted into the NFL. Former Giants and current Seahawks safety Julian Love the other.

McCarthy, even amongst that class, always stood out.

In the spring, early on Friday mornings, Nazareth hosts a string of padless football workouts. They’re voluntary, run by the players with coaches supervising. Occasionally some of the younger middle school kids will stop by and observe. One year, Racki noticed the same sixth grader showing up every single Friday. Sometimes his parents would drop him off. Other times he’d ride his bike over.

But come 6 a.m., when the players walked out to the fields, there was McCarthy waiting for them.

Eventually, McCarthy went from watching to participating. He couldn’t even fully grip a high school ball, but Racki threw him out there in individual drills. McCarthy became a staple — the high school kids loved it. On the final play of the spring practices, Racki let McCarthy play quarterback.

He threw a touchdown up the seam. The older players went nuts.

Racki became a bit more familiar with McCarthy, much to his dismay, the ensuing year. His son and McCarthy played on opposite seventh grade teams. Racki remembers watching their game and seeing McCarthy come to the line, as a 12-year-old, and start calling audibles.

“You see him throw the ball, the way he ran, you knew he was going to be different,” Racki said. “But then you see that and you’re like — oh my God. He just knows the team. He was a special kid.”

J.J. McCarthy while playing for Nazareth Academy.
J.J. McCarthy while playing for Nazareth Academy. / Courtesy of Tim Racki

By the time McCarthy finally got to Nazareth, the hype around him was at an all-time high. It had nothing to do with his middle school successes or attending practice, though. Just before his freshman year, during the summer as an eighth grader, McCarthy attended an Iowa State football camp. He began throwing with his age group. An assistant coach monitoring the drill then went over to head coach Matt Campbell to have him watch. Campbell came, saw, then moved McCarthy into a drill with those older.

Campbell and Iowa State offered McCarthy a scholarship after the camp. He hadn’t yet thrown a high school pass.

The news quickly made its way around La Grange Park and the surrounding towns. The plan with McCarthy, though, wasn’t to play him his freshman year. He was smaller — no more than 5-6 or 5-7. He wasn’t physically ready for Nazareth Academy’s varsity schedule. That first year he played freshman ball and J.V. He dressed for varsity to experience the atmosphere, but didn’t play.

McCarthy showed up for his sophomore year standing 6-2. He received the reins to the offense. Nazareth opened the season at home against Lutheran North. The game was among the most highly anticipated, largely because it was McCarthy’s debut. He heard comments from opponents after incompletions in scrimmages and joint practices. The visiting students would let him hear it on this night, too.

Then came McCarthy’s first pass.

He dropped back, then rolled outside the pocket and right. He planted his foot, turned his shoulder, and fired a laser 40 yards across his body to hit his receiver in stride.

There was silence on the Nazareth coaching headsets after the play. No one knew what to say. Then, Racki spoke up.

“Well, I think he’s ready,” the coach joked.

McCarthy took Nazareth to back-to-back state championships, winning the first. He transferred from Nazareth to IMG Academy for his senior season with Illinois’ football future uncertain amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He led IMG to an undefeated 8-0 record, a GEICO High School Bowl Series title, and a national championship.

J.J. McCarthy
J.J. McCarthy / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

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There’s a noticeable disdain in his voice -- he gets it, you have to find something to criticize him for -- but Greg Holcomb, a quarterbacks coach at Next Level Athletix, can’t hide how much it annoys him. He’s worked with McCarthy since he was in seventh grade. The two still get together whenever he comes home from Michigan. This idea that McCarthy isn’t physically special? Incapable of making the same throws Jayden Daniels, Caleb Williams or Drake Maye have because of the run-oriented offense he played under?

He believes it couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“Wait,” Holcomb said, “Let me send you something.”

Holcomb digs through his phone for a video McCarthy sent him. It’s from a Michigan practice and still, to this day, is among the most absurd throws the coach has seen. McCarthy is under center, fakes the handoff, then drops back. Jaylen Harrell pressures him right from the snap. McCarthy, feeling the pressure, begins to backpedal left and away from the rush.

Just as Harrell is about to reach McCarthy, A.J. Henning, running a drag route from the left, breaks open right. McCarthy, while backpedaling, pivots his shoulders, fires a pass, and hits Henning between two defenders in stride.

It’s not just that play, though. Holcomb realized when he first started working with McCarthy that his technique and fundamentals needed very little attention. They refined things, but he knew how to play quarterback. So, in their sessions, he tried to make him as uncomfortable as possible to create chaos on the field. He wanted McCarthy to have practiced the unforeseen situations.

There was a play he wanted McCarthy to recreate from a Green Bay Packers - Detroit Lions game. Aaron Rodgers feels immense pressure from the start. He ejects out, flips his hips, parallel to the line of scrimmage, then hits Jordy Nelson in the back of the end zone.

Most quarterbacks Holcomb works with take a dozen or more attempts to even get the basics of the play, drill down, he said. That makes sense: It was a ridiculous throw from one of the most talented players to ever throw the football.

McCarthy nailed it on his first attempt. Then again. And again.

He was in seventh grade.

“I remember seeing that and then telling his dad that he was going to have 30 offers,” Holcomb told SNY. “Turns out I was wrong. He had 50.”

Jan 8, 2024; Houston, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) against the Washington Huskies during the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2024; Houston, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) against the Washington Huskies during the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports / © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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The criticisms among McCarthy’s physical ability are likely because they can’t find anything else to poke, Holcomb said. As a person? Teammate? Every intangible any team might look for? According to his quarterbacks coach, McCarthy has it.

There are football examples Holcomb has no problem sharing. Michigan held their walk-on tryout day this past year. McCarthy was the only current Michigan player to show up. He went there to help the quarterbacks understand what the program wanted and how to dissect the offense. The attention around McCarthy in high school led to an abundance of press. Whenever things went wrong, he needed to address it. He didn’t blame anyone but himself — even if the mistakes were obvious.

Then there are more personal ones.

Holcomb needed a last-second babysitter. McCarthy and his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée filled in. The next day all his son could talk about was how incredible of a grilled cheese sandwich McCarthy made. There was the time Holcomb’s son was playing in the Pop Warner regional championship. It was freezing cold out. McCarthy was already committed to Michigan. He showed up to the game, addressed the team. The kids, then 10 years old, still talk about it.

Racki has one image of McCarthy he’ll never forget. It was after maybe their third or fourth game his sophomore year. He finished addressing the press himself, then looked to the field. From the 50-yard line to the end zone were hordes of kids — young and those in high school. Making his way down, still fully dressed in uniform, was McCarthy. He signed, took photos. Racki ran over to his quarterback. He wanted to “save him,” he said, otherwise he felt he’d be there late.

He pulled McCarthy aside. Racki said he’ll make up an excuse so he doesn’t have to continue: Go in, get changed, go home. McCarthy shook him off. He said he’s not leaving until every kid who wants something signed, gets something signed.

“‘You know what? Doesn’t surprise me, kid,’” Racki recalls telling him. “Then I gave him a hug and walked off.”

Jan 1, 2024; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) looks to pass in the first quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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McCarthy’s draft projection is among the most dramatically changed in recent months. After Michigan’s championship with him at the helm, most figured he’d hear his name called somewhere in the early second round or late first. Now, McCarthy seems destined to be a top-six pick.

That doesn’t surprise most NFL folk.

A high-ranking talent evaluator told SNY that McCarthy is destined to be a better pro than he was in college. His 2023 stats (2,991 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, four interceptions) aren’t an indictment of his lack of arm talent, but simply the result of playing in a run-oriented offense with linemen who specialize in run blocking.

Another highlighted his production in that offense and arm talent on specific throws. He was convinced McCarthy is worthy of a selection that high, adding his technique and pocket awareness are among the best in the entire draft.

Still, there are some who question whether his physical gifts are worthy of a Top 10 selection. But even McCarthy’s harshest critics whom SNY touched base with acknowledge his intangibles make up for that.

The Minnesota Vikings, as things currently stand, are believed to be the favorites for McCarthy, multiple sources told SNY. They’ll have to trade up from No. 11 to jump the Giants, picking sixth, in order to make that happen. Sources believe they are willing to do just that, gifting a quarterback to receiver Justin Jefferson and head coach Kevin O'Connell. The Giants are also in the mix, but aren’t believed to have the excess in resources needed to move up to No. 4 (Arizona Cardinals) or 5 (Los Angeles Chargers), to prevent the Vikings in doing the same.

Whenever McCarthy’s name is called, he won’t be in Detroit to hear it. He’s choosing to host his own draft party, instead wanting to be surrounded by family, friends and those who helped him get to this point.

Racki will be among those in attendance. Holcomb, too.

“What do you want in an NFL quarterback?” Racki said. “The kid can throw. He can mesh in any room he walks into. He’ll do exactly what the offense calls for. He can be patient and methodical, but then aggressive.

“He’s special. He’ll be more than fine. Anyone who has seen it, knows it.”