Pygmalion, Cinderella, and J.J. McCarthy: The Transformative Nature of Meeting the Right People at the Right Time
Image Credit: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: J.J. McCarthy.

J.J. McCarthy, the National Championship-winning QB of the Michigan Wolverines, wasn’t tasked with much passing volume in the Jim Harbaugh system but finished with a 27-1 record in two seasons as a starter, his only loss coming in the 2022 semifinals against TCU. In large part due to a lack of counting stats, McCarthy started the draft process as a second-tier prospect in the minds of most sports writers and analysts. However, there quickly began a resonant echo chamber of NFL scout lauding that had been entered into the mainframe; by the time the draft had come, serious rumors circulated he could be taken as high as No. 2 overall. On Day 1 in Detroit, Minnesota traded up one spot to call his name at No. 10 overall.

THE PROFILE

McCarthy was a four-star recruit in 2021. After growing up an Ohio State fan, he reportedly went to Michigan out of spite after recruiting had jaded him. While there, he played sparingly as a true freshman, then took over as a sophomore. Michigan’s reputation as a run-first smashmouth offense did him few favors statistically, but the team consistently won, eventually topping Washington in the National Championship this past January.

The criticisms of McCarthy’s collegiate profile stand out. Michigan was part of a top-heavy Big Ten, where only four teams had more than five conference wins. Beating up on usual doormats like Rutgers and Indiana as well as sleeping powerhouses like Michigan State and Wisconsin, who were on down years, the only quality opponents for the Wolverines in the Big Ten were Penn State, Ohio State, and a cartoonishly uneven Iowa team that was all defense. To Michigan’s credit, they managed victories over Alabama and Washington in the postseason, but this was not the most formidable schedule.

Additionally, Michigan ran the ball far more than they dropped back, logging carries on 60% of their plays, ranking 11th among Power Five teams in 2023. Famously, they ran 33 straight times in the second half against Penn State without logging an official pass attempt (there was one throw wiped away by a pass interference that does not show on the stat sheet).

McCarthy’s defense attorneys would perhaps begin cross-examination by pointing out that each relates to the other and, had the Big Ten been better, the run-heaviness would have been less pronounced. Additionally, while the disparity in run/pass splits is true, it is overstated; even Alabama was more prone to run in 2023, and this percentage is in line with 2022 Notre Dame and the 2020 COVID Buckeyes, who were carrying eventual first-round passing game pieces Justin Fields, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. McCarthy finished 61st in the nation in dropbacks, plopping him right in the middle of the pack in the entire FBS. Michigan is prone to running the ball, but they shouldn’t be treated like service academies.

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Mat Irby

RotoViz contributor since 2023, fantasy player since 1991, and someone who occasionally dabbles in full-time film work when no one's looking - even on a thing or two you've seen. Atlanta is for sleeping, but Dallas will always be home.

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