February 28, 2024

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Michigan-Iowa film study: Hawkeyes will test JJ McCarthy’s NFL readiness

Michigan-Iowa film study: Hawkeyes will test JJ McCarthy’s NFL readiness

When it comes to quarterbacks, it took Jim Harbaugh nearly a decade at Michigan to find and develop the player he wanted. Then he found two.

What were you looking for? A few things: a quarterback who played with passion and unbridled toughness; The player who wasn’t afraid to get hit, scream, or play hurt – in fact, just make that a “fearless person”; A football addict whose confidence borders on illusion.

Obviously he wanted the same.

That’s what he found when Michigan signed Cade McNamara before the 2019 season. Harbaugh and McNamara hit it off as soon as they first met in Harbaugh’s office on a recruiting trip, when McNamara was committed to Notre Dame but pretty sure he wanted to play at Alabama instead . By the end of Football’s initial interaction with Harbaugh, he had completely changed his mind.

Less than a year later, Harbaugh found JJ McCarthy.

“He’s better than me,” Harbaugh publicly admitted — perhaps for the first time in his life, of any quarterback in football history — after McCarthy’s first road win as a starter, in 2022. Ironically, that win came against Iowa State. , McNamara’s current team and Michigan’s opponent in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game.

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Mentally, one could argue that Harbaugh and McNamara are more similar. All the NFL quarterbacks who train with McNamara all leave with the same result: McNamara truly believes he is a better player than them. McNamara was not a friend of McCarthy’s when they were together in Ann Arbor. He was his rival and his teammate, sometimes more of the former than the latter. He’s still not happy with the way the competition went, and there’s a good chance he’ll never be happy.

He told me Harbaugh would have handled it differently.

Michigan and Iowa will meet again this weekend, and the biggest problem is that we won’t get to see McNamara and McCarthy — former teammates who hold special places in Michigan lore — in action, as McNamara continues to recover from ACL surgery.

Maybe next year. Maybe in the world of football or another place or time.

For now, let’s look at another huge test for McCarthy, against another great Hawkeyes defense.

There may not be a more polarizing NFL draft prospect in this upcoming class, regardless of position, than McCarthy. This is the case for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest is that his offense, compared to most of his QB peers, severely limits his opportunities. Michigan’s offense is completely different, so the context of McCarthy’s evaluation is different as well.

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Take Michigan’s win over Penn State, for example. In that game, McCarthy, without his head coach, was asked to punt the ball eight times, on the road, against a team that couldn’t stop the run. None of his throws were off target that day. He got the ball out when he was supposed to, made sure every run call was checked properly and won the game. once again.

The lazy narrative that day was that he didn’t play well. The real story is that he did exactly what he was told to win, without complaint.

What worries McCarthy now is whether he’s ready to lead an NFL team on an all-time basis for a calendar year. He’s 20 years old, doesn’t have a lot of attempts, and still has inconsistencies in putting the ball up the field. We could use more tape versus quality competitors.

Fortunately for McCarthy and every NFL evaluator, Iowa State will provide just that.


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From a precision coverage standpoint, Iowa’s defense is the best group Michigan will coach this season. Penn State has more talent in the NFL. Ohio State was at least as good (if not slightly better) than Penn State. But Iowa is different. Even without star DB Cooper DeJean, Phil Parker’s bullpen is smart, disciplined and can be very opportunistic.

McCarthy has shown growth this season in a number of areas, specifically from the pocket and on third downs. He’s been sloppy at times, but his expected points added (EPA) per attempt against zone rose from 0.22 last year to 0.53. He also improved his EPA number against man (from .32 to .50).

His worst day of the year came in a non-conference game against Bowling Green, when McCarthy was off target on more than 30 percent of his throws and scored three times. Two of those interceptions came against the Cover 3. Maryland, another team McCarthy struggled with, also showed Michigan a lot of Cover 3s.

This coverage happens to be Iowa’s specialty. The Hawkeyes are also experts at Cover 2 and Cover 6 looks. Even without DeJean, Iowa has dangerous DBs in Sebastian Castro and Quinn Schulte. Michigan won’t get a lot of man coverage looks in this game, no matter how well it runs the ball early.

Up front, Iowa State doesn’t have the horsepower we’ve seen from some of the other division winners led by Kirk Ferentz, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad group. Junior Logan Lee (6-foot-5, 291 pounds) has some Lucas Van Ness-like traits as an interior edge rusher and is tall enough to play on the edge. Aaron Graves (6-4, 293), a sophomore, may be the best of the group in terms of future upside.

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Discipline remains Iowa State’s greatest strength, although the Hawkeyes tackle better than anyone in the country — Iowa ranks first nationally in yards per rush allowed after contact (2.08). There is no Jack Campbell on this year’s depth chart, but senior Nick Jackson and his fellow linebackers fit the route well and are very difficult to fool.

The other factor on Saturday will be health in a few areas.

Michigan will be without its best offensive lineman the rest of the way after guard Zach Zinter suffered a broken leg against Ohio State. Zinter is arguably the best point guard in the country, so he’s a huge success for Michigan but not a disaster either. The Wolverines’ backup plan worked well here last Saturday, and the line is still loaded with talent. Carsen Barnhart, Michigan’s former right tackle, moved inside to guard after Zinter’s injury. (It fits better there anyway.) Trinity Jones, who started Michigan’s win over Iowa last year, stepped in at right tackle and reminded people he’s also a potential player.

McCarthy’s health is another matter. He had suffered an ankle injury in recent weeks. Although this situation looked much better versus the Buckeyes than it did versus Maryland or Penn State, it was still potentially a bit of a concern.

Ohio State’s biggest wrinkle featured backup QB Alex Orji, who entered the game to take the Michigan-designed QB package off McCarthy’s plate. Orji is 6-foot-3, 236 pounds and has such an extreme combination of rush and agility as a runner that at one point this season Harbaugh considered using him as a kick returner.

Against Ohio State, Michigan brought in Orji (who made Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List”) to run the QB Bash series — a run-read package McCarthy has been using since Michigan began listing him in the rotation with McNamara as a true freshman in 2021.

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As a result, nothing about this should come as a surprise to Iowa. However, it will be interesting to see if Michigan shows more of Orji in this game — and moving forward into any potential playoff appearance — that extends beyond the Bash series.

McCarthy has had a lot of success with two-way reads this season, and Michigan has all sorts of other concepts like this in the bag. If Orji can be trusted to throw the ball even a little, Michigan could add a really valuable piece down the stretch and salvage some of McCarthy’s health.

For the Hawkeyes, the path to victory is the same as it is every week: Find a way to confuse the opponent, no matter what happens on offense.

QB Deacon Hill is a huge redshirt freshman at 6-foot-3, 258 pounds with a huge arm. However, he has not taken advantage of it yet. Among 116 FBS quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, Hill’s off-target rate ranks 116. So, as usual, Iowa State will look to run the game. But, like when Iowa State lost 31-0 to Penn State earlier this year, Michigan’s defense could make Saturday’s game a laughing stock if the Hawkeyes can’t find a way to run the ball a little.

For McCarthy, the biggest and fairest question asked by scouts and evaluators is whether he can put his team on his back if his game isn’t successful. The Ohio State game provided more data than the Penn State game, but hardly a tremendous amount.

To me, McCarthy is a potential quarterback who should go in the back half of the first round in this draft. But he may end up near the middle of the second round on a few boards, simply because there isn’t enough of that data needed. His talent, acceleration, IQ and competitiveness are all things scouts love.

Iowa’s offense is bad. Everyone knows this. But his defense is outstanding, and it will provide another great test of McCarthy’s NFL readiness — and a chance for him to add to his ring collection.

(JJ McCarthy Image: Keith Gillette/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)