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College Football Playoff – How J.J. McCarthy meshed with Jim Harbaugh to become Michigan’s best QB

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy took the snap from the 18-yard line and quickly felt pressure from his left side.

He sidestepped an attempted tackle and took off to avoid another oncoming defender. He ran to his left, looking to throw the ball downfield. He glanced up as he was fleeing, saw Donovan Edwards and flipped the ball across his body to the running back for a 16-yard completion down to the 2-yard line.

It was a seemingly inconsequential play in a Week 7 game against Indiana, a game the Wolverines would win 52-7. But to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, it brought about a strong sense of déjà vu.

He’d done it himself in 1985, during his junior year at Michigan in a game against Iowa. Harbaugh took the snap at the 6-yard line, felt pressure, rolled to his left and shoveled it across his body to running back Gerald White for a touchdown.

The two throws were mirror images — broken plays where the quarterbacks made instinctive (and dangerous) throws to great success. After the game, Harbaugh celebrated his quarterback’s performance, saying McCarthy was on a path to be the best quarterback in Michigan history.

After Michigan’s 41-13 win over Purdue on Nov. 4, when McCarthy threw for 335 yards, Harbaugh took it a step further.

“Just enjoy the ability of J.J. McCarthy and the talent that he is as a passer, as a runner, as a leader,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t come along every day, every year, every decade, ever. I think he’s truly the best college Michigan quarterback that we’ve ever seen.”

That’s high praise for a school which has produced Tom Brady, Chad Henne, Brian Griese and, of course, Harbaugh himself, who played for the Wolverines before a 15-year career in the NFL.

McCarthy is 25-1 in his two seasons as a starter, leading the Wolverines to consecutive Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff berths — the latest of which is Jan. 1 against Alabama in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Prudential (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). This year, he has done it despite Harbaugh being suspended for six total games — three related to recruiting violations and three for the Connor Stalions sign-stealing scandal. Despite those obstacles, McCarthy is third in quarterback efficiency among all FBS quarterbacks this season, second in completion percentage and third in catchable pass attempt percentage.

So how does a kid who draws a smiley face on his hand to remind himself to smile, meditates before every game and prefers alkaline-filtered water garner that type of confidence and trust from a coach who swears by milk and steak, and was a successful quarterback himself?

As it turns out, they might be a little more alike than things appear.

“[Harbaugh] always says I remind him of a young Jimmy Harbaugh, just kind of a bit reckless at times,” McCarthy told ESPN. “It’s working for both of us, our mindset is, it’s everything for the team and it makes it so much easier for us to be successful if you know the guy touching the ball every play is worried about getting the ball to everyone else and not just themselves.”

Before every game, McCarthy sits against the foam padding of the goalposts with his legs crossed to meditate. He’s visualizing himself in front of an elevator, pushing the down button, walking into the elevator and pushing the button for the ground floor.

He watches as the numbers of each floor light up, and as this imaginary elevator is taking him down, he repeats affirmations to himself that he is confident, qualified and capable.

McCarthy found meditation in high school while playing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He was a four-star prospect, ranked as the No. 25 player in his class. But, he felt stuck away from his home in La Grange, Illinois. That led him to search for ways to strengthen his mind. He used guided meditation apps and various methods that have helped him center himself.

“I was going through some depression pretty bad and I was researching like crazy, anything to help develop better well-being and meditation was the first thing I put into practice,” McCarthy said. “When the depression kept going, I knew it wasn’t just being homesick. So finding meditation was the best thing that’s ever happened to me to get through that.”

Through meditation, McCarthy said, he has found a calm before the game that has transferred over into the game. He doesn’t dwell on mistakes, stays positive no matter the situation and relishes in his teammates’ success around him instead of focusing on his own accolades.

But it might be the only thing Harbaugh and McCarthy disagree about.

“I brought [meditation] up to him once and I was like, yeah, he’s not going to buy into it at all,” McCarthy said. “He said, ‘It’s pretty much just listening to your thoughts the whole time?’ I said yes, but you want to quiet your thoughts as much as possible and the observation and awareness of them quiets them. He was just like, ‘Yeah, I think I do enough of that already.'”

McCarthy has shown that unselfishness throughout the season. He threw just eight times against Penn State, and in the first half of the season, as the Wolverines outscored their first nine opponents 366-60, McCarthy was often pulled for the backups and hardly threw any passes in the fourth quarter. While he now relishes in coming out of games to allow his teammates time to play, he wasn’t always glad to cede his playing time.

“He would get mad at times that we couldn’t bury people back in youth football,” McCarthy’s father, Jim, said. “I’d have to pull him out of the game, because he wanted to put his foot on their throat and win big. But, at the end of the game, he always wanted to hang out with everyone and be friends with them.”

That innate competitiveness is more aligned with how his coach, who was once nicknamed “Captain Comeback,” used to play.

Harbaugh set Michigan’s single-season passing record in 1986 and held it until 2002. He was third in the 1986 Heisman race. When Harbaugh played for Michigan, he would wear his letterman’s jacket on campus and welcomed any attention that came his way. McCarthy prefers to attend class with sunglasses, a beanie and a hooded sweatshirt to avoid recognition.

In his first season at Michigan, with students knocking on his dorm room door and following him into elevators, McCarthy asked Harbaugh if he could move off campus.

“I told him about that and he was like, ‘You don’t love that? Those are the best times of your life,'” McCarthy said.

He didn’t move out of the dorms. Instead, he turned to a longtime Michigan staffer for help.

Greg Harden was hired at Michigan in 1986 by then-coach Bo Schembechler as a staff consultant and a counselor and mentor to student-athletes. He has since worked with Brady, Desmond Howard and many others.

One of the first football players Harden met after he was hired was Harbaugh, who was a college senior at the time.

“Jim believed in himself and Jim’s mindset was so intense and focused,” Harden said. “I remember he got in trouble with Schembechler for guaranteeing a win over Ohio State, which was something you didn’t do back in the day.”

Through his work at Michigan, Harden became a life coach and mental health mentor and while he officially retired from the university in 2019, he continues to work with athletes, including McCarthy.

“J.J.’s personality and Jim’s personality are very uniquely different,” Harden said. “J.J.’s non-stop smile captures everybody and Jim is serious and dead-focused like a laser beam. J.J. is like a spirit from another planet.”

Deep down, Harden said, they both want the same thing: to win. McCarthy and Harbaugh just have different strategies for getting there.

“There’s a synergy between the two of them. And, I mean, it’s like reading each other’s mind,” Harden said. “For Jim to have somebody that has bought in completely, it’s a wonderful experience for a coach to have a young person who absolutely surrenders their ego and is coachable. And J.J. trusts Jim, the trust is at an unbelievable level, so they truly believe in one another and you can see that Jim will let him go.”

Their relationship has grown over McCarthy’s three years at Michigan. It underwent a big adjustment this season during Harbaugh’s suspensions. Prior to the season opener, McCarthy walked off the team bus with a T-shirt bearing Harbaugh’s name and No. 4 with a piece of tape above the name that read “Free Harbaugh.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, I wasn’t expecting [games without Harbaugh] to be that much different, but I personally just felt like something was missing … and it was definitely him,” McCarthy said in September. “His presence, it’s all about winning, all about competing, all about pushing through. As simple as the pregame speech, I was missing that voice.”

In return, Harbaugh has been equally supportive of this quarterback. As the two sat in front of reporters after winning the Big Ten championship game, Harbaugh wasn’t asked about McCarthy but felt the need to interject and once again praise his quarterback.

“I’ve said it before, I would follow him to hell and back,” Harbaugh said.

McCarthy leaned into his mic, looked at Harbaugh and said, “Likewise.”

Through his research on meditation and body preservation, McCarthy discovered alkaline water from a Japanese filtration company called Kangen Water.

Harbaugh has made it very well known that he is a milk enthusiast, even appearing in milk commercials. In 2015, he spoke about his insistence on drinking whole milk, because every other type of milk was “candy ass.”

“I take a vitamin every day, it’s called a steak,” Harbaugh said at the time. “I truly believe the No. 1 natural steroid is sleep, and the No. 2 natural steroid is milk, whole milk. Three would be water. Four would be steak, it goes with everything.”

McCarthy was surprised when Harbaugh told his star quarterback he would be willing to install a Kangen filtration system in the facilities if it meant that much to his quarterback.

“They’re different, but there are definitely ways they rub off on each other. J.J. has his lingo, sometimes he’ll be like, ‘That play was hot,'” backup quarterback Jack Tuttle told ESPN. “The next thing you know, Coach is on the field like, ‘Damn, that play was hot.'”

Their connection has built trust and McCarthy’s success has followed. He’s third in the country in completion percentage (75.7%), sixth in passing touchdowns per attempt, second in catchable pass attempt rate and first in third-down conversion percentage on passes (62.5%).

“I think it’s just because we have so much respect for each other and from what I’ve seen with him is he’s become much more open-minded to any sort of new ideas since I’ve been here,” McCarthy said. “And I’m the same way. I’m open-minded to any sort of coaching, any sort of criticism and I just feel like we bounce off of each other with ideas.”

That trust plays out on the field in Harbaugh allowing McCarthy to improvise and show some of that recklessness. Rather than reining in his quarterback, Harbaugh has allowed McCarthy to be who he is, both on and off the field.

“They’re different, but there’s also a lot of similarity there. It’s like opposites attract,” Tuttle said. “Sometimes I’m next to Coach Harbaugh on the sideline, J.J. is rolling out and next thing you know, Coach Harbaugh is like, ‘No, don’t throw that.’ And then J.J. will throw it across his body and it’s a touchdown and Coach is like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s good.'”


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