Nazareth Academy's quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against Lake Zurich in the first quarter at Lake Zurich High School on Aug. 31. Nazareth Academy won 25-0.
Nazareth Academy's quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against Lake Zurich in the first quarter at Lake Zurich High School on Aug. 31. Nazareth Academy won 25-0. — Candace H. Johnson for Shaw Media

It's a quiet sunny May morning, and J.J. McCarthy is awaiting his workout partners.

McCarthy, Nazareth's baby-faced sophomore quarterback, waggles his arms to his sides like an airplane preparing for takeoff. Wearing a backwards Michigan cap, McCarthy gives away his Big Ten destination reserved for two years from now.

On this day, McCarthy is going through a 17-play workout scripted by his quarterback coach, Greg Holcomb.

He's focused, yet relaxed, and why not? McCarthy is a week removed from ending a whirlwind recruitment, when he picked Michigan from 33 offers.

Near the end of the workout, McCarthy pulls out the favorite play from his bag of tricks at Nazareth.

"Buggo W-Over."

Progressing through his reads, McCarthy finds his target, the deep post to the outside receiver. He hits him in stride in the end zone.

"That would look good in the Big House," he shouts at his receiver.

But this play's genesis came from further west.

"We got that play from Oregon," McCarthy said. "I love watching all these other schools and their plays and watching what they do. I saw Buggo W-Over and I thought 'oooh we can run this at Nazareth.' I showed it to our offensive coordinator and he loved it.

"I'm a huge nerd in the film room."

***

Jim McCarthy wishes he would have kept J.J's notebooks.

Well before he arrived at Nazareth, years before he became the apple of college recruiters' eyes, J.J. was a kid who loved to doodle and draw plays. He was enamored by the whole thought process of playing quarterback.

Like a boy scout, McCarthy never left for football camp without his backpack and notebook. McCarthy went to the Future 4 competition in Miami, the biggest quarterback grade school competition in the country, and carried around his notebook 90 percent of the time.

"First question when we get to camp, 30 quarterbacks are there, and they go 'OK everybody get out your notebooks and we're going to break down film.' They looked around and J.J. was the only one with a notebook," said Jim McCarthy, J.J.'s dad. "When he trained at IMG, they were showing J.J. the notebooks of pro players, how detailed they were, how you can always learn by carrying around a notebook. He got bonus points. He was the only one with a notebook."

By sixth grade, McCarthy had set up his own whiteboard in the family basement for his personal workshop. He does whiteboard work at Nazareth every Sunday with the offensive staff, and at camps and training facilities – but also spends hours before games in the basement.

Pen and paper has given way to modern technology, as his "at home" white board has been replaced with Hudl on a laptop.

"It's my own area, I can be creative with it, see what works and what doesn't work watching other people, try to make it a part of our offense," McCarthy said. "I love the mental stuff; that's 90 percent of a quarterback's game when you think about it."

It's hardly time spent just self-examining.

Last fall, a sophomore going into his first varsity start, McCarthy had Nazareth's first opponent Lutheran North so broken down from his whiteboard work he had tendencies of every player from the year before.

"You can be an average quarterback, but smart intellectually and the sky is the limit for you," Jim McCarthy reasoned. "That's what he works so hard at. He's blessed with a thunderbolt in his right arm, God gave him that, as well as the intellectual ability."

This season, McCarthy plans to have his offensive linemen over to go over stuff, to know what they know.

Mike Donato, who used to coach at Nazareth and Riverside-Brookfield and now runs Donato Sports Performance in Bridgeview, started doing white board work with McCarthy in fifth grade.

Donato noticed a 10-year-old McCarthy "always in the moment" with a focus unique to his age. Donato started out with basic work with McCarthy – pre-snap checklist, key indicators, red flags – but it's evolved into a quarterback meeting similar to college.

Donato will give McCarthy homework – find one tendency in an opponent, and next time show how he got there.

"When I was playing, I didn't get put in front of a board until I was in college. It's too late by then, as far as where he wants to go. He needed to start doing it sooner," Donato said. "We try to get together once a week and watch game film, Sundays or Mondays, we fly through his stuff, here you're drifting, this is why you felt pressure, look at upcoming opponents, his pre-snap checklist, see if we can pick up a tendency or two. When the lights are on, bullets are flying, that's when you need to do it."

Jim McCarthy bought the NFL Sunday Ticket satellite package so J.J. could break down Tom Brady, Pat Mahomes and other quarterbacks.

"You want to learn from the best, learn from those guys," Jim McCarthy said. "He spends a lot of time looking at Aaron Rodgers, Baker Mayfield, Mahomes. He's kind of that kind of player, and Brady how he goes through progressions."

***

Holcomb pulls out a favorite Rodgers highlight play in the workout to showcase McCarthy in his element.

McCarthy rolls to his left, sets his feet, and then breaks out further left to avoid pressure before delivering a strike in the back corner of the end zone.

"Throwing on the run under pressure is one of the hardest things to do, and J.J. makes it look so natural," Holcomb said. "It's funny, I think he over thinks the easy ones some times. When he's in that natural element, and he doesn't have time to process things, and it just naturally happens, he excels."

Or, as McCarthy puts best, "I'm more comfortable in chaos."

"Hey, it's a huge aspect to the game," McCarthy said. "It's third and 12, and you got to make a play, that's a big part of it. You're not always going to have the clean three-step drop, hitch post. It's not going to be like that. Being able to practice the uncomfortable and perfect the uncomfortable is what I'm trying to get to right now.

"I love it, I love being that uncomfortable pressure, the whole crowd is chanting overrated. I love that. It fuels everything."

Or, as Holcomb says, "I always tell guys, the receiver is open when he's open, not when your feet are underneath you."

"It's such a huge thing when I watch film of any quarterback in today's world," Holcomb said. "They're always under pressure, they're not standing back in the pocket in a nice clean environment. It comes down to, when things break down, can you make plays that other guys can't. J.J. is one of those guys that can do that."
•••

McCarthy loves quarterbacks like Mayfield, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson.

But he almost gave football up to be another Jonathan Toews.

He played for the Chicago Young Americans hockey club growing up. He even skipped football in third grade to focus on hockey. McCarthy did baseball, could hit and throw a ton, but that sport was too slow for a kid who couldn't sit still.

"Leading up to eighth grade I was like, maybe I'll take the hockey route," McCarthy said. "Then Ohio State offered [for football]."

The hockey sticks are hung up for good, but Jim McCarthy reasons that the experience on ice is still useful. J.J. got more joy in hockey dishing off assists than scoring goals. That spread to football, where McCarthy loves being the facilitator to get the ball to his guys.

"The discipline, being at the rink at different times, the camaraderie of the team, the skating ability to get out of tight spaces, he's comfortable in chaos cutting and slashing," Jim McCarthy said. "J.J. has always been a cutter/slasher type runner. He will do whatever it takes, jump over people. I can't take that out of him. I'm a firm believer that hockey made him the athlete he is today."

***

When Holcomb first started working with McCarthy, after seventh-grade season, he recalled a kid "super skinny and small." J.J. was only around 5-foot-10 as an eighth-grader. Holcomb told him he'd have to fight the height stereotype.

But Holcomb, a Downers Grove resident, and the founder of Next Level Athletix Quarterback Training in Carol Stream, saw the rare gift.

"I had not seen a seventh-grader with this natural a throwing ability," Holcomb said, "and it's one of those things that it felt like overnight he started to develop physically, grew a few inches here and there. The height thing wasn't going to be a factor anymore."

Holcomb told Jim McCarthy he thought J.J. would be a 20-offer kid, which sounded crazy to dad.

Then Iowa State became the first college to offer, at a combine camp at North Central College in Naperville before McCarthy's freshman year.

Indiana, Iowa State and Cincinnati followed. South Carolina offered after McCarthy's varsity debut against Lutheran North, a 20-6 Nazareth win.

Now McCarthy is a solid 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, and the second-ranked quarterback nationally in the Class of 2021. If that ranking holds, he would be the highest-ranked quarterback ever signed by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

He threw for 3,289 yards and 36 touchdowns with just four interceptions in leading Nazareth to the Class 7A final against St. Charles North.

“It’s funny because I’ve been a head coach for 21 years and in coaching for 27 years, but I didn’t know what a Division I quarterback looks like,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “I’ve had some great players at Addison Driscoll and Nazareth, but not like J.J. Just the way the ball comes out of his hand, the velocity and location and accuracy.

“Plus, he has all the intangible and ability in the huddle. He has a rocket arm. I’ve never seen anything like that."

****

It was the best kept secret around Nazareth.

Three days before the Class 7A state championship game, the biggest of McCarthy's life, a 20-degree November day, his right hand caught the top of the helmet of a Nazareth defensive player in practice.

His thumb was fractured.

McCarthy and his family went to a hand surgeon Thanksgiving morning, where he was given two choices.

"If this is Week 2, you're done for the year," Jim McCarthy recalled the doctor saying. "If you can manage this pain, you can do it – because on Monday you're having three pins put in the thumb.."

McCarthy made it to Friday practice, wearing a glove for traction. Championship Saturday, though, adrenaline kicked in, the gloves came off.

"He was like 'I don't care. I don't want tape, I don't want anything. I'm going to get through this,'" Jim McCarthy said. "Any time they were under center they brought in Teddy Olander in, they kept J.J. in at shotgun. By halftime he was hurting."

He popped a Motrin, stuck it out to throw for 201 yards and a touchdown. Surgery was Monday.

When word spread to college coaches, McCarthy's recruiting took off like wildfire.

Like dominoes, the offers stacked within three weeks after the game – Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, and then Ohio State and Penn State.

***

McCarthy stops his warmups to walk over and greet his visitor with a firm shake.

"Good to see you again, sir."

McCarthy may be Illinois' top college prospect, a five-star recruit and Michigan football's favorite next son, but he hardly carries the air of privilege about him.

Jim McCarthy likes that he's going to Michigan to fight for playing time, that nothing is promised, just like in high school when he was one of eight quarterbacks when he enrolled at Nazareth.

Close to a 4.0 GPA, the academic All-State recognition means more to mom than anything.

"Football is a short life," Jim McCarthy reasoned. "Better to get your act together with grades."

McCarthy volunteers at Special Needs prom and the LaGrange Park food pantry. He finds the first kid to play catch with at camps just like his hero, Ben Bryant, did at Lyons. Holcomb has an 8-year-old son who adores McCarthy, because he takes the time to talk to him.

"It's almost obnoxious how perfect he is," Holcomb said with a wide grin. "He's a nothing but class kid, doesn't have an arrogant bone in his body. That's just who he is. I think him staying in the Midwest and playing for a program like Michigan fits him."

McCarthy admits that the Michigan decision "was a weight off his shoulders," but now the shoe is on the other foot.

McCarthy is playing the role of pied piper, playfully prodding other top recruits on Twitter to join him in Ann Arbor.

Holcomb thinks the McCarthy effect could be huge for Illinois, showcasing to colleges that five-star quarterbacks aren't just bred in California and Texas and Florida.

"We haven't had a kid like J.J. around here for a while," Holcomb said. "There are some skill-position players we've had, but not a quarterback. Quincy Patterson [from Solorio, now at Virginia Tech] had a lot of offers, but I don't remember a guy that nationally had this kind of attention. It's great for the state of Illinois to get on the map."