Michigan commit J.J. McCarthy keeps eye on end goal, adjusts to life away from home
For as long as he can remember, quarterback J.J. McCarthy, a 2021 Michigan commit, has had tunnel-vision focus on football, and that’s what he relied on the first few days after settling into his new high school and temporary life in Florida.
Away from his family back in Illinois, McCarthy, who announced in May he would transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, for his senior year, is in the midst of preseason practice getting ready for the Ascenders’ season opener in late August.
McCarthy led Nazareth Academy in Illinois to three straight state championship games, winning one title as a sophomore in 2018, and he was motivated to lead the team back to another title this fall, but a few things altered that plan. There was uncertainty about Illinois high school athletics because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and weighing more heavily was his desire to enroll early at Michigan in January, something that wasn’t going to happen if he remained at Nazareth. He will graduate from IMG in December.
“Coming down to it, yes, it was a huge factor for me,” McCarthy, a five-star prospect and Michigan’s top-rated recruit, said of transferring to ensure enrolling early. “My goal is to get in there as early as possible because having that extra semester opens up so many more opportunities for me education-wise and playing-wise and just developing my body. There's nothing negative that could come out of enrolling early, so it was definitely a big-time benefit of coming to IMG.
“My family and I had a sit down and realized that we can only control what we can control. That's really what it comes down to. And we just made the decision, and it’s the decision that's the smartest one that we could have made.”
It was odd leaving the comfort of home earlier this month for IMG, but he adjusted quickly. McCarthy knew Michigan commit Greg Crippen, a four-star offensive lineman, and became acclimated to his new surroundings and built new friendships.
“It's football heaven here. It’s football all the time,” McCarthy told The Detroit News in a recent interview. “It's definitely a big change off the field just being on your own and being away from your family and away from home, but everyone's in the same position so you can kind of relate to each other and you kind of become closer with everyone here.”
Before his departure to Florida, McCarthy also participated in a shorter version of the Elite 11 Finals that included 20 of the nation’s top high school rising senior quarterbacks. They participated in a variety of drills and competitions over three days in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound McCarthy is a perfectionist and tough grader.
“I performed not perfect the first day, but I only missed probably two balls the whole night, so it was really good,” he said. “And the second day, we had a 20-throw pro day script that we had to do. I was the first one to go voluntarily and I didn't feel I got through as well as I wanted to. But I did all right, still placed top 10 in the final standings for that day. And the third day, we had this conditioning drill where it was like eight targets and we had hit all of them in a certain amount of time and the fastest time wins. I performed top five in that.
“Overall throwing the ball, I did probably mediocre for my liking, but from the media's perspective they said I performed very well. But that’s not what I took from it most of all. It was the off-the-field experiences that really impacted me in a much bigger way.”
He met 9-year-old Ryan Berg, who attended the camp as part of the Never Ever Give Up organization for kids fighting cancer, and a friendship was born. Berg, who was photographed with current Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara at the Elite 11 last year, told McCarthy he’s a big Michigan fan.
“I went over there, gave him my Michigan bracelet,” McCarthy said. “The next couple days, he was always by my side, and we were just having a great time together. There's just something so powerful and it touches me because I'm huge about kids and how can I help them. He inspires me with everything he's been through.
“It just gave me such a big realization of what life is really about, what playing quarterback and being the quarterback at Michigan could really mean, the opportunities I'll have to make such an impact on kids like Ryan.”
The two continue to text each other.
“My parents always harped on being there for the kids,” he said. “They always told me, ‘Take care of the kids and then come to us after the game, we'll always be here.’ I never really took into consideration how important that was, and how that one wristband you give them or that one smile that you put on their face could impact them.”
McCarthy reads a lot of books about leadership and striving to be the best in an effort to realize goals he set for himself long ago. Moving to Florida to play his final season of football may not be ideal, but it's part of his path.
“I'm not a normal kid. I don't want to do the normal kid stuff,” McCarthy said. “My mom always told me, ‘You're never going to be a normal kid.’ I mean, she really saw my future. And it was really cool to get that point and finally understand everything that my coaches have been telling me and everything that my parents were telling me.
“My love for football is just something that is truly unique. It’s one of those things where I know what I want, and I made this decision that I want to play football for the rest of my life. I decided that football was going to be my everything around right after we lost the state championship (last season). That was the breaking point. Fifth grade is when I knew I loved football and I just wanted to play for as long as possible, but after we lost state, I knew I had this clear vision of where I want to be. I'm just running with it, and I'm working as hard as I can to get there.”
Because he knows he wants a football career, McCarthy said he doesn't wrestle with what some might think are tough choices, like leaving Nazareth for IMG.
“Once I made that commitment, I never felt like I was sacrificing anything, because it was something I love to do,” he said. “I found out why I am on this earth, and it's to play football and to impact people in the next generation through football, and to use that platform to do good in this world.
“If people truly, truly love what they're doing, they don't see the sacrifices. They always see the end goal, and they realize what they have to do to get there. It's like putting a puzzle together. That's what it is. It's not thinking about the early mornings, not thinking about the long practices and the conditioning and all that stuff, because it’s like, ‘Oh, this is gonna get me so much better. This is just gonna elevate my game to the next level.’ So I'm excited to do this.”
McCarthy’s enthusiasm for recruiting has not ebbed, and he continues to engage the players the Michigan coaches are still actively recruiting to the 2021 class that is ranked No. 8 nationally.
“It's never enough, so I'm always going to keep going and I'm always pushing the kids out there,” McCarthy said. “It's fun the class we’re building. It's a really special class and I'm going to keep recruiting all the classes below me because I know if I was a recruit and someone like (former Michigan quarterback) Shea (Patterson) was hitting me up, that would definitely change my perspective on that school a lot. And I don't see that enough with college players, so I'll for sure be recruiting even when I'm at Michigan.”
He is really happy with the 2021 class and looks forward to arriving in Ann Arbor in January to get started. The 20 commits are always communicating.
“We have a group chat going right now and we're talking every day. It's really cool to see the different personalities,” McCarthy said. “We have this certain similarity about us I can't really like describe. I can't really describe it in a simple couple words. It’s something about it. We're all on the same track. We see the opportunity that we have. We don't care about the outside noise. We don't care what anyone is saying about our class. We're just focused on how we can get better and what we're gonna do when we get there at Michigan.”