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'I hate image': Five-star QB J.J. McCarthy will bring hard work, vision, discipline to Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

J.J. McCarthy stunned himself when, on take four, he was able to sling a football about 45 yards while seated, his legs crossed, over a fence and, swish, through the basketball net.

He shared the video early last month on Twitter and dubbed it, “Bored at the crib.”

McCarthy is a five-star quarterback committed to Michigan’s 2021 class, which has 11 members so far that he actively stays in touch with while also encouraging other recruits to join this group heading to the Wolverines. He’s going into his senior year having led the Nazareth Roadrunners to the Illinois Class 7A title as a sophomore and a runner-up finish after junior season.

“Like everyone else, I was just completely bored, thinking of fun stuff to do,” McCarthy told The Detroit News of the video. “Me and my buddy had been shooting hoops and we started throwing the football around, and it went from there.”

McCarthy was in Phoenix at the time with family and now is back home in Illinois, taking his high school classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While in Phoenix, he had an opportunity to work out and throw with Phoenix-native Spencer Rattler, a quarterback at Oklahoma, and former Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, who attended Pinnacle High in Phoenix and recently signed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots.

“I was throwing with some of the best quarterbacks around, and that just made me so much better because I was in that environment twice a week,” McCarthy said. “I was just picking their brains, asking what their experiences were in college. I was talking to Brian a lot about the whole process of being drafted, and Spencer, because he's gonna be a sophomore and just had his first year, I was talking to him a lot.”

J.J. McCarthy

McCarthy misses being with his friends and teammates, but he will occasionally go outside to throw and for runs, and he lifts on his own at home. He meditates every other day, something he picked up from listening to late NBA star Kobe Bryant, and reads books that have helped him develop his personal goals and leadership skills.

“I'm the most mentally strong and in shape I've been in a while,” he said, adding he has maintained a stress-free balance to his days.

He is having a hard time, though, not having football as an outlet.

“Literally, I will watch football hype videos and tear up, because I’d be like, ‘Wow, I really miss it that much,’” McCarthy said. “I miss being around my teammates. I’m with them every single day, and now it's been more than a month. It’s like not being by your family for a month. It's terrible.”

McCarthy has been particularly active on social media lately, hyping up the latest Michigan commits and jumping on board when a player announces he has a Michigan offer.

The growing 2021 class gives him a charge. They’re all in a text message group, and sometimes he’ll play Fortnite with his future teammates or they’ll just talk or text.

“I’ve developed a lot of really close relationships,” he said. “I love this class. I love how we're getting kids that are going to work their butts off no matter what. And I just love the energy that they're bringing. I’m just super excited because I don't even know where we're ranked in the football recruiting team things, but I could care less about stars and stuff like that.

“All I care about is dudes that are willing to work their absolute hardest and be to their absolute best potential. And these guys are that and they got a chip on their shoulder and I fricking love it.”

Michigan’s 2021 class currently is ranked No. 10 nationally by the 247Sports Composite and No. 4 in the Big Ten.

Not long after leading the Roadrunners to the state title, McCarthy committed to Michigan on May 11, 2019. The timing was calculated. He knew he wanted to play for Michigan, and he also knew he wanted his mind clear to focus on leading his high school team.

“And we lost the state championship last year, so I made a promise to all our seniors that it wasn't going to go unfinished and we got some business to do, and all the juniors and the seniors know that and a lot of underclassmen, too, are picking up on that,” he said. “I'm really excited about this year as a high school football team because we have the edge and I see I see my boys working like no other and it fires me up big-time.”

J.J. McCarthy

McCarthy is known for his strong arm, but he is working to improve his pre-snap reads and adjustments. While going up to the line, he felt he was thinking too much, and Michigan quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels gave him some advice to help him alleviate the overthinking. For instance, McCarthy said he would focus too much on the cornerbacks’ techniques, and McDaniels told him those aren’t going to tell him anything as he gets set to run the next play.

“Coach McDaniels was just pointing out all the things that matter and it helped me so much,” McCarthy said, before laughing. “And it was like, ‘Oh, I wish I knew this two years ago.’”

But he also wants to work on his running ability. He said he has run a 4.7 40-yard dash.

“I had some people say I was too slow, so I'll be rushing for 2,000 yards this year, watch,” McCarthy said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to, but I just always chose to pass. I'll run around in the backfield and I'm looking for one of my dudes that runs a 4.4 to get the long run. I'd rather have him do that and be a little selfish and not run myself. I'm almost 200 pounds now, so I've been putting on a lot of weight and that will give me the ability for a lot more designed QB runs. And also if it's third-and-1, I'm getting that first down. I'm lowering that shoulder.”

The 6-foot-2 McCarthy played last season between 180 and 185 pounds and grew tired of hearing critics say he’s been too light and undersized. He plans to play at 200 pounds this upcoming season.

“A lot of these kids that I would go to camps with and then be compared to with the whole weight and size and everything, one, they're probably a year older than me because they reclassified, and two, don't worry, it's gonna happen. I'm 15 years old, I’m gonna get bigger. It only takes one offseason to be 200 pounds again,” McCarthy, now 17, said, referring criticism he heard two years ago. “All these writers just need to fricking wait. To be honest, I’m just letting puberty to take over. I'm just letting my body develop the way it was going to develop. I’m still growing. Like, I just got armpit hair like three weeks ago.”

McCarthy has a lighthearted manner, but he’s incredibly focused on improving himself in every way. He said he has done considerable research on being a leader and has drawn much from the book “Extreme Ownership” by former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. McCarthy has a board in his room on which he has written three items from the book that motivate him.

“There are no bad teams, just bad leaders; a leader must take extreme ownership in your team's failures; and figure out how to fix your problems instead of figuring out who to blame,” he said. “Those three points are huge going into this year.”

He also has his five steps to success.

“Number one, work your butt off. No. 2, have a very clear vision of where you want to go. Three, you have to be disciplined. Four, you have to be tough, and five, do not listen to the naysayers,” McCarthy said. “That's what I live by. After we lost state I was up to like 4 a.m., just one of those things where you couldn't fall asleep. There were a million things in my head, and I just threw all this up on this whiteboard.”

McCarthy said Michigan would like for him to enroll early, and that’s his desire, too, but he needs to work that out with Nazareth school officials.

While 2021 seems like it’s far down the road, he said getting to Michigan is feeling closer and closer. He stays in touch with McDaniels and sometimes communicates with Cade McNamara, a Wolverines freshman quarterback last season. His focus is on his high school team, and that’s how he’d like to keep it for now.

“I'm not gonna go in there like Mr. Five Star or anything like that. I hate that. I hate image,” McCarthy said, referring to when he will finally head to Michigan. “When I get there I just want to show them that I'm willing to work my butt off and do whatever I can to make the team better.”