How did Michigan football's J.J McCarthy get so tough? He's a hockey player

Tony Garcia
Detroit Free Press

Michigan football quarterback J.J. McCarthy hasn't been able to bring himself to play his former sport, even for fun.

Walking around Schembechler Hall with bare feet, the sophomore told the story of how football was not his original sports passion and while it is now, his heart will always have a soft spot on the ice.

"That was actually my first love," McCarthy said of growing up playing hockey in La Grange Park, Illinois. "I started when I was like 5 years old and yeah I had to make a really big decision on if I was going to stick with the hockey route or the football route.

"I kind of made that decision around freshman year of high school and it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make."

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Piscataway, New Jersey.

It has worked out OK. After winning the starting QB battle over the incumbent and captain Cade McNamara that stretched from the summer into the first few weeks of the regular season, McCarthy has led the No. 3 Wolverines (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) to an unblemished record with just three weeks left in the regular season.

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In his first season as a starter, McCarthy has completed 70.9% of his passes (139-for-196) for 1,615 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also run 39 times for 203 yards and two scores.

On Saturday at Rutgers, McCarthy took a shot on the sideline late in the second quarter as he was headed out of bounds. While he said it hurt, he also said "that was the hit that kind of pissed me off that game and set a whole different trajectory for the rest of that game."

The Wolverines outscored the Scarlet Knights in final two quarters, 38-0, to cap the 52-17 victory, which included two McCarthy touchdown passes. When coach Jim Harbaugh compared him to tennis great Bjorn Borg, McCarthy didn't know who that was but asked reporters how to spell his name Tuesday night so he could do some research on him.

McCarthy did understand that Harbaugh called him the "ice man" because he can stay cool and calm under pressure. It also could speak to his hockey prowess.

"We talk about all the toughness and all of that, that’s where it comes from," he said. "So many relationships, so many lessons learned from it. Playing hockey has done tremendous wonders for me at the quarterback position and playing football. I’m extremely grateful for that whole career experience."

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy rushes for yardage against Rutgers during the first half on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 in Piscataway, New Jersey.

McCarthy said he hasn't so much as played pond hockey since stepping foot in Ann Arbor, but smiled and implied that will likely change after his football season is over.

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"I think it’s just like my way of avoiding guilt for leaving the game," he joked. "But I’m definitely going to this winter, I’ve got some skates coming in."

Growth from the youth

Michigan's defensive line looks quite different this days. One year after Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, the Wolverines sacks and pressures have been spread out among several players.

Mike Morris is the new leader, with Mazi Smith, Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham and Eyabi Okie all capable of tackles for loss. Braiden McGregor, who is still working his way up in a deep line room, is starting to make a name for himself with 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks, including two in the past three games.

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"As you get older and understand the game more, it definitely slows down that way," McGregor said. "But our coaching staff, coach (Mike) Elston teaching us our keys really well, teaching us this pad tip and focus on your key, it really does work."

Defensive end Braiden McGregor on the bench during the Michigan spring game April 2, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

Also, he's finally not getting mistaken for Hutchinson. Like last year, when he was walking out to his family tailgate after the game against Indiana when he didn't see the field. He was stopped by a guy who said 'great game man!' to which McGregor said, "thanks?"

He admits both he and Hutchinson hated getting mixed up with one another because they don't think they look alike — Hutchinson's dad even called McGregor "dirty Aidan" because he has two full arm sleeves of tattoos while Hutchinson has none.

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Jokes aside, he said he did look up to Hutchinson and still does.

"Honestly a little bit of everything," McGregor said. "From the way he fuels his body. I'd sit next to him in the meeting room and he always had little packets of electrolytes before practice. During camp how he was eating and he'd be going to bed super early. We were going to be roommates for camp and he was telling me all this stuff.

"You look at him and how well he's doing now, there's a reason everybody looked up to him last year, just the way he carried himself off the field and obviously on the field ... what I picked up most from him is how you practice is how you play in games."

It's a lesson all freshmen need to learn and it's something that comes faster for others. Take linebacker Jimmy Rolder, for instance.

The four-star recruit from Chicago was a late bloomer. He didn't get his first Division I football offer until senior year, from Illinois. He thinks it came, in part, because he had committed to the Illini as a sophomore to play baseball.

But as the offers came in, Michigan eventually felt like the right spot, but he wasn't an early enrollee so he admitted when he arrived in the summer, he was swimming in the playbook a bit and there were parts of the next level that were more difficult than he'd imagined.

Michigan Wolverines linebacker Jimmy Rolder (30) and defensive back Keshaun Harris (36) tackle Connecticut Huskies wide receiver Dajon Harrison (8) during the second half at Michigan Stadium, Saturday, September 17, 2022.

"Honestly, it's been a lot tougher mentally compared to physically," he said. "Having to kind of retain everything kind of fast, it was tough in the beginning but it's getting easier as I go, which is expected, but definitely tougher mentally than I expected."

Part of that is the complex nature of Jesse Minter's defense. He runs a similar scheme to that of 2021 defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald, both of whom come from the Baltimore Ravens and the John Harbaugh coaching tree.

"We ran like two coverages and maybe five blitzes," Rolder said of his high school's rather simple scheme. "We will check to five blitzes and two coverages on one play (here) so, it's nothing even close."

Then, there's the fact he's the middle linebacker, perhaps the most vocal role on the defense. He's responsible for tying up the fronts and the coverages. There's the development in going from seeing a play on paper, then on film, then doing it in a game, as his linebacker coach, George Helow, explained.

Eyes, alignment, assignment, all need to be sound and after making a career-high five tackles against Rutgers, the progress is starting to show.

"He's going to continue to get better," Helow said. "We ask those guys to do a lot, he's responded and just his overall attitude, and how he prepares, he's very mature."

Contact Tony Garcia at Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.

Next up: Cornhuskers

Matchup: No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) vs. Nebraska (3-6, 2-4).

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday; Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

TV/radio: ABC; WXYT-FM (97.1), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Wolverines by 30½.