How Does J.J. McCarthy Compare to Other Michigan Quarterbacks

By any measure, this has been a memorable season for the Michigan Wolverines. Heading into the final weeks of the regular season, the Wolverines are in a position to win the Big Ten title and return to the College Football Playoff.  With sports betting in Michigan is now legal, a multitude of fans are wagering on the Wolverines to secure the national title. Central to this triumph is quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who has firmly established himself in his role as a key player.

During the season, head coach Jim Harbaugh has suggested that McCarthy could end up being the best quarterback in Michigan history, which is lofty praise. Harbaugh has also compared McCarthy to Andrew Luck, who Harbaugh coached at Stanford. Such a comparison should not be made lightly. Of course, given the strong quarterback lineage at Michigan, including Harbaugh himself, how close is McCarthy to being the best to ever play for the Wolverines? Let’s take a closer look at how McCarthy compares to the best quarterbacks in Michigan history.

Tom Brady


Obviously, Brady has staked his claim as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. But he wasn’t necessarily the greatest in Michigan history. He was a backup on the 1997 Michigan team that won the national championship before taking over as the starter for two seasons. During those two years, the Wolverines went 20-5, earning a share of the Big Ten title in Brady’s first season as a starter. However, with 30 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions, and a modest 7.5 yards per pass across those two seasons, Brady didn’t exactly leave Michigan a living legend.

Chad Henne


Henne has the advantage of being a four-year starter, helping to boost his overall numbers. Of course, starting as a true freshman at Michigan has been an unusual occurrence, so Henne deserves plenty of credit for that accomplishment. His four seasons coincided with the last four years of Lloyd Carr’s tenure, which is one of the most memorable eras in Michigan football. While he played with a strong supporting cast, Henne threw at least 22 touchdown passes in three straight seasons, falling short as a senior due to an injury. He also led the Wolverines to at least nine wins in three of his four seasons, ultimately leaving the school as the all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns with 87.

Jim Harbaugh


The current Michigan coach had quite the career as a player. While the Wolverines were just 6-6 during his first year as a starter, that season began with an upset over reigning national champion Miami. Across Harbaugh’s junior and senior seasons, Michigan went 21-3-1 and finished second in the country in 1985. While some of his records would later be broken, Harbaugh left the Wolverines as Michigan’s all-time leader in passing yards. He also set the NCAA record for passer efficiency across his three years as a starter, a record that remained intact for 12 years.

Rick Leach


While he ended up spending a decade in the big leagues as a pro baseball player, Leach was an elite college quarterback in the 1970s under Bo Schembechler. The southpaw started all but one game during his four years at Michigan. He was a true dual-threat quarterback who threw for over 4,000 yards and ran for over 2,100 yards during his career. While his accuracy as a passer wasn’t great, nor were his 33 career interceptions compared to 46 touchdown passes, Leach was responsible for an NCAA-record 82 total touchdowns. More importantly, the Wolverines went 38-8-2 with him as the starter between 1975 and 1978 with Leach leading Michigan to four top-10 finishes and three consecutive Rose Bowls.

McCarthy’s Case


Does McCarthy compare to any or all of the four quarterbacks mentioned? Well, after he was finally able to distinguish himself from Cade McNamara early in the 2022 season, he started putting together a resume that’s worth being considered as the best quarterback in Michigan history. McCarthy totaled 27 touchdowns and threw just five interceptions last year, helping Michigan go 13-0 heading into the College Football Playoff. Outside of his two interceptions in the national semifinal, there isn’t much more McCarthy could have done to help the Wolverines in a wild 51-45 loss against TCU.

In 2024, McCarthy picked up where he left off. He’s helped the Wolverines steamroll one opponent after another, completing more than 75% of his passes and averaging better than 10 yards per pass. McCarthy has also used his legs when needed, but his incredible accuracy and efficiency as a passer are what has made him stand out as a Heisman candidate and put the Wolverines in the running for the national title.

However, McCarthy still has a lot left to accomplish if he wants to top Brady, Henne, Harbaugh, and Leach. All four had a combination of impressive stats and a lot of wins. Harbaugh was right to say that McCarthy is on a path that could lead him to become the best in Michigan history. But he’s not there yet, although leading the Wolverines to a national championship would certainly help his case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *