Michigan football: Jim Harbaugh says Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy are still competing

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Nearly a dozen practices and at least one scrimmage had come and gone as Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh strode toward a lectern inside Schembechler Hall on Wednesday, his cleats clacking along the tiled floor.

He had last spoken to the media at Big Ten Media Days in late July, when the primary topic of conversation was the ongoing quarterback battle between the incumbent Cade McNamara and the challenger J.J. McCarthy. Nothing had changed in the three weeks since Harbaugh’s surfacing in Indianapolis, and the elephant in his program was immediately addressed.

“Jim, you’re in the back half of camp now,” a reporter asked to begin the news conference. “Has there been any separation at quarterback one?”

The question would have been asked regardless of when Harbaugh scheduled what is likely to be his only interview session of training camp, but it felt particularly applicable given one of his comments on an athletic department podcast earlier this month. Harbaugh told the show’s host, ex-Wolverine Jon Jansen, that eight or nine practices into preseason is when a decision might be made, when enough time has passed for one quarterback to potentially separate from the other.

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

Fans eager for an unimpeachable verdict in the ongoing saga of McNamara vs. McCarthy came away disappointed when Harbaugh said the players remain neck and neck. He offered little in the way of a revised timeline and instead, over the course of his 17-minute appearance, began laying the foundation for a race that could spill into the regular season.

“They both just continue to elevate their game,” Harbaugh said in response to the opening question, “really on a daily basis, in every little way. It’s pretty tight. They’re both playing at high starter-caliber.”

Though the calendar shows two weeks and change until the opener against Colorado State on Sept. 3, the final five days of that stretch will operate like a normal game week with Michigan formulating, installing and repping its game plan in practice. That leaves little more than a week for one of the quarterbacks to emerge before the Wolverines must devise a strategy featuring both.

Once again, Harbaugh left the door open for each possible outcome.

Scenario A: “One of them is going to separate and be the starter,” Harbaugh said, “and then we’ll roll that way with a starter and a backup.”

Scenario B: “The other guy could be the starter and the other be the backup,” Harbaugh said. “That would be option two.”

Scenario C: “And option three is we’d have to see them play games to make that decision,” Harbaugh said.

With each passing day, Harbaugh’s "C secnario" seems like the inevitable conclusion to a competition that started on the first day of fall camp but began in earnest the moment McCarthy, a former five-star prospect, arrived on campus as part of the 2021 recruiting class.

The fresh-faced and cannon-armed McCarthy embodies the grass-is-always-greener philosophy that permeates fan bases whose members track recruiting the way brokers monitor stocks. From the moment McCarthy signed with Michigan, a countdown until he assumed the reins began.

“He’s gonna be really good,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said earlier this month. “We’re excited about him in the future. I mean, it’s hard to see him being anything but really, really good at the University of Michigan whenever his time comes. We’re just going to continue to develop him, and he’ll be playing for us at some point. It’s just a question of when.”

The lingering shoulder soreness that sidelined McCarthy during spring practice paused his ascendance following an impressive relief appearance in the Orange Bowl. Weiss told reporters McCarthy was “working his way back into it” during the early portions of fall camp and then described McNamara as playing at a “really high level.”

That a healthy version of McCarthy has been unable to win the job is both a credit to McNamara, who continues to resemble a younger version of his head coach, and an invitation to wonder about the former’s grasp of the offense. Weiss’ comment about using McCarthy as a runner last season to simplify the defensive looks he faced seemed to indicate the true freshman had significant ground to cover in the non-physical parts of the game.

“He certainly threw the ball effectively also,” Weiss said. “But what (the designed quarterback runs) did for him is it controlled the defense, right?”

Cade McNamara runs the offense during the Michigan spring game Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Michigan Stadium.
Cade McNamara runs the offense during the Michigan spring game Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Michigan Stadium.

What’s clear at this point is that Michigan appears no closer to selecting a starter than it was a few weeks ago when fall camp began. The possibility of another quarterback timeshare inches ever closer to becoming a reality.

And while outsiders may roll their eyes, Harbaugh seems content to let the competition unfold through August and beyond.

“Some people like to say, ‘Well, if you don’t have a (true) starting quarterback then you don’t have a quarterback,’” Harbaugh said. “I mean, I’d put that into the category of people that they’re born originals and they die copies. They just hear something and they parrot it.

“This is a very good, unique situation. We have two quarterbacks that are playing at a high starter level, and we’re going to keep competing. It’s possible that there’s a starter by the first game and then possible that it plays into the season. Then we pick the one that’s gonna help the team win, you know? Who’s going to be the best person to play quarterback to win the game?”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan still searching for starting quarterback, Jim Harbaugh says