LA GRANGE, Ill. — It’s a bright Saturday morning, and J.J. McCarthy is explaining which routes he likes to throw.
McCarthy, a 4-star quarterback committed to Michigan in the class of 2021, is nearly halfway through a workout at Nazareth Academy, a Catholic school located just 30 minutes outside of Chicago that McCarthy led to a state title as a sophomore.
With a grin, McCarthy says he prefers to throw the “Cover 2 hole shot or post.” Later, he’ll end his training session by hitting both. But first, he has to continue with a 17-play workout scripted by his quarterback coach, Greg Holcomb, who has worked with McCarthy for the past three years.
It has been a whirlwind month for McCarthy, who verbally committed to Michigan on May 11 during his unofficial visit to Ann Arbor. That ended a recruitment that began nearly two years ago, when Iowa State extended McCarthy’s first offer on June 12, 2017.
At the time, McCarthy had yet to begin high school. When he committed, he had 33 offers.
In less than two years, the wiry 6-foot-2, 180-pound prospect became one of the most coveted quarterback prospects in his class. 247Sports, which is the only recruiting site to have the 2021 class ranked, has McCarthy as the No. 19 overall prospect and the No. 2 quarterback. If his ranking holds, he’ll be the highest-ranked quarterback from the midwest ever, based on the 247Sports Composite rankings, which stretch back to 2000.
Based on Saturday’s workout, it’s apparent why prognosticators and college coaches alike are so high on McCarthy’s potential. While he misses occasionally, most throws are on target and he hits his receivers in stride. And although McCarthy isn’t the biggest quarterback, he has plenty of arm strength. The ball zips even during warmups, when McCarthy — standing still — throws to receivers 15 yards away.
McCarthy has all the physical tools to be a successful quarterback. He appears to have the requisite mentality, too. It’s clear McCarthy has a high-level understanding of the game. At one point, he describes his favorite play from Nazareth Academy’s offense, titled “Buggo W-Over.” It comes out of a formation with three receivers and one tight end, with two on each side. McCarthy says his team borrowed the play from Oregon, and he promptly lists out the reads in order:
Look to the right, where the outside receiver runs a vertical route and the slot receiver runs a bubble screen. If the defense overplays the screen, throw deep. If the vertical route isn’t there, throw the bubble screen. If neither are open, look to the left, where the tight end is running an over route across the middle of the field. If the safety bites and jumps down, then throw the deep post to the outside receiver.
McCarthy didn’t run this play Saturday, but his workout forced him to make similar reads. Many plays asked McCarthy to look through multiple progressions before throwing to a secondary target. Nearly every play had him throw off-balance or on the run.
This, according to Holcomb, is what sets McCarthy apart from other quarterbacks — the ability to process everything in front of him, avoid any pressure and still deliver an accurate ball.
“I’m more comfortable in chaos,” McCarthy once told Holcomb.
There’s one drill that highlights McCarthy’s entire package. Holcomb says it was borrowed from a play Aaron Rodgers made against the Detroit Lions on Jan. 1, 2017. Rodgers, flushed from the pocket, rolled to his left, set his feet, rolled again to avoid more pressure and delivered a strike to Geronimo Allison in the end zone.
— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2017
The point of the drill, called “Double Check Pocket Pressure,” is to force McCarthy to roll out to the left and make a throw on the move without being able to generate downhill momentum. And instead of making a 10-yard pass, as Rodgers did against the Lions, McCarthy has to throw 45 yards to a receiver cutting all the way across the field into the end zone.
Which he does with relative ease. Multiple times.
Holcomb has coached plenty of Division I quarterbacks. Throws like that are what sets McCarthy apart — and why Holcomb says there’s never been anybody like McCarthy in Illinois. It’s why Holcomb compared his pupil to Johnny Manziel on Saturday, and why he has also compared him to Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson and NFL stars Drew Brees and Baker Mayfield.
McCarthy understands the expectations facing him. He’s ready to face them head on.
“(I’m going to) have fun with it,” McCarthy said. “You’re only in high school for two more years, so have fun with all that expectation and then once you get to college, have fun with that expectation that you’re the face of the program and you need to dominate.”
Michigan “checked all the boxes”
McCarthy’s recruitment was not without twists and turns.
He grew up an Ohio State fan after watching former Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Ohio State offered him a scholarship, but McCarthy says he felt more at home at Michigan. The Buckeyes landed their quarterback for the 2021 class, Kyle McCord, on April 30.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, also factored into McCarthy’s recruitment. The Fighting Irish supposedly told McCarthy twice that he would receive an offer, but a tender never came through. On March 8, Notre Dame found its quarterback when Tyler Buchner gave his verbal commitment.
“Everything that went down, it’s a business, like they always say,” McCarthy said when asked about Notre Dame. “So I just kinda sat back and let everything happen. I was a little bit upset. But they got a good quarterback. Tyler’s awesome. He’s an awesome kid. He’s going to do great things there, and I can’t wait to play him every single year.”
Despite his childhood allegiances, McCarthy says he “didn’t really have a leader” during his recruitment. The turning point came this spring, when McCarthy took his first visit to Michigan on April 6 for an open practice at Michigan Stadium.
The trip “checked all the boxes” for McCarthy. He cited the Wolverines’ development of quarterbacks, the program’s tradition and the “top-notch education.” McCarthy also got the chance to watch Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and assistant coach Ben McDaniels work with the quarterbacks.
“So I got the feeling,” McCarthy said, “that indescribable feeling when quarterbacks go there and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is home,’ I felt it the first visit I went there.”
Still, McCarthy didn’t want to make a hasty decision. He recalled having the same feeling after visits to other schools, only for the post-visit high to subside after a couple of weeks.
Then he visited Michigan again on May 11, got the same exact feeling, and knew he was ready to pick the Wolverines.
Harbaugh plays big role
According to McCarthy, Harbaugh told him that he was “number one quarterback” and that he wouldn’t accept a commitment from any other prospect before he talked to McCarthy. Harbaugh pushed hard for McCarthy in a way that few other head coaches did, and that allowed the two to build a connection.
“It meant a lot,” McCarthy said. “The fact that he kept his word on it, too. The fact that there’s just so many hard-working quarterbacks out there. And so many great talented quarterbacks, that really meant a lot, that he said that to me.”