Why Michigan's QB situation reminds me of Alabama in 2018, and the lessons to take from Nick Saban
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline in the Big Ten this spring will play out in Ann Arbor. Can Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara hold off rising sophomore JJ McCarthy? Or will the 5-star recruit pass up the incumbent starter of Michigan’s first B1G champion in 17 years?
I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question, even Jim Harbaugh. That’s why this is going to be a fascinating situation to follow.
By now, I think most everyone acknowledges McCarthy’s potential, even if McNamara did a terrific job leading Michigan in 2021. McNamara began 2020 as a third-stringer, and no one could’ve predicted he would pass up 2 guys in just a year and return Michigan to prominence.
But McCarthy is just … different. He has a cannon for an arm. He is a terrific runner. He is big. He carries himself with a maturity beyond his years. Assuming he continues to develop this offseason the way he did in Year 1, he’ll be at the point where he could start pretty much anywhere in the country by this fall.
So, what is Michigan to do? To simply anoint McCarthy as the full-time starter from the get-go would seem a little callous to the guy who was the leader of the best team Michigan has had in 24 years. But Michigan can’t possibly run it back this year with McCarthy only coming in for a handful of plays every now and again, right?
It’s a little ironic that Harbaugh’s tenure has been plagued by his inability to recruit QBs. And now he has 2. And they both have 3 years of eligibility remaining. (McNamara red-shirted in 2019, and 2020 didn’t count against anybody because of the Covid rule.)
It’s reminiscent of Alabama’s situation in 2017-18, when Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa shared reps at QB. Hurts was the veteran who started in 2016 and 2017, but Tagovailoa came on late in his true freshman season and eventually passed up Hurts in his second season. Just like Tagovailoa relieved a struggling Hurts in the national championship game, McCarthy played the second half for a struggling McNamara in the College Football Playoff; the tiny difference is that Tagovailoa won the Tide a national title, while McCarthy merely got the Wolverines within 3 scores.
Of all the accomplishments of Nick Saban — like the 7 national titles — one of his best coaching moves was how he handled the Tagovailoa/Hurts situation. And it’s probably an afterthought in comparison to everything else, especially considering Alabama didn’t win a title that year. But the way he managed that situation was incredible. It probably did help that Tagovailoa suffered a hand injury in spring ball that kept the door open for Hurts to start in the fall, though he didn’t win the job. But Saban reportedly kept the competition open all fall and didn’t tell Tagovailoa that he was the starter until the team met in the hotel lobby before the season opener.
Even after that when it was clear that Tagovailoa had to start, Saban somehow kept Hurts, a 2-year starter, engaged while the youngster took over and shined. And when Tagovailoa got hurt in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, Hurts came off the bench and led the comeback.
Sure, there were moments like this where Saban grew agitated.
Nick Saban a jerk towards ESPN reporter Maria Taylor pic.twitter.com/PiLdpf1KRx
— BakersBrownies (@Brownsnuggets) September 2, 2018
But you can see his strategy. He tried to continually lift both guys up. (Side-note: Can’t you see Harbaugh giving this same response next season when a reporter asks him this question?)
The major difference between these situations, of course, is that 2018 was before the one-time transfer rule where players have immediate eligibility with their new schools. It’s a much different game now for transfers, so McCarthy or McNamara could leave after the spring and win a starting job at another program. And that may be the best thing for both in the long-term. Both deserve a chance to be the starter. The best thing for Michigan, though, would be for both guys to stick around and be engaged. It obviously worked out for Tagovailoa and Hurts, the latter of whom wound up transferring to Oklahoma and having a great season there before getting drafted in the second round by the Eagles. Both are starting in the NFL now.
Hurts clearly came at the situation with the right attitude, that he would stay ready and then become the best free agent in the sport, which he did. He’s a model for anyone who wants to help themselves by helping the team.
The lesson here is to not go back-and-forth, like Ohio State did in 2015 with Cardale Jones and JT Barrett. How did an offense that had Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Curtis Samuel not finish in the top 40 nationally in total offense? Part of that was due to Urban Meyer going week to week as to who would start. The best thing to do is to stick with the guy who gives the team the best chance to win a Big Ten title and a national title, and try to keep the other guy engaged as the backup.
Harbaugh has to figure out, what does the ideal situation look like? If there were no egos involved, how would he do it? Saban set the model. There’s no guarantee it’ll work out as well as that — the Tide had the No. 6 offense in the country (after finishing 29th the season before), won an SEC title and reached the national championship game — but the point is, this isn’t an unprecedented situation.
Harbaugh did a great job managing the QB situation this season, by empowering McNamara while also helping McCarthy grow. He’ll probably need a different strategy in 2022, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how he handles it.