Nick Eubanks recalled a conversation he had with Cade McNamara this offseason.
Eubanks, Michigan football’s fifth-year senior tight end, worked out often with McNamara, a redshirt freshman quarterback. Eubanks found himself impressed by McNamara’s determination and work ethic.
At one point, Eubanks said Tuesday he told his younger teammate, “Man, just keep chipping away. Your time is going to come. And once it comes, you’re not going to be surprised.”
Those words were especially pertinent this week — because McNamara’s time might’ve finally arrived.
The Wolverines have re-opened their quarterback competition halfway through the season. McNamara has a golden opportunity to move up the depth chart just days after replacing starter Joe Milton in the third quarter of Saturday’s 49-11 blowout loss to Wisconsin.
At the same time, Milton won’t let go of the job easily.
“All I see is both of them wanting to fight and wanting to win the job,” said left tackle Karsen Barnhart on Tuesday.
Milton won the initial quarterback battle against Dylan McCaffrey (who has since left the program) and McNamara, and Michigan seemed eager to tether its offense to the strong-armed redshirt sophomore from Pahokee, Florida.
Milton has shown glimpses of the potential that coaches and teammates talked about all offseason. He has made some impressive throws and has displayed the physical tools that wowed the Wolverines in practices and workouts.
But his play has been erratic — emblematic of the offense’s overall struggles. Milton has thrown four interceptions in the past seven quarters and just played his worst game of the season, completing 9-of-19 passes for 98 yards and two interceptions against Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Eubanks took the blame for the first interception, which he dropped only to see it picked off by Badgers safety Scott Nelson. The second pick, though, was all Milton, as he threw directly at Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal.
The offense’s overall struggles — it has scored fewer points and generated less yardage in each progressive game this season — aren’t just on Milton. He has had zero help from the run game the past two weeks, is without both starting offensive tackles and has faced second- and third-and-longs seemingly every possession.
BUT THE DEFENSE, THOUGH:U-M DL coach ’embarrassed’ by run defense; Harbaugh disagrees
At the same time, Michigan still saw enough from Milton’s play to re-open the quarterback competition.
So far, Milton’s response has been “positive,” according to Eubanks.
“He never looked at any situation negative,” Eubanks said. “He knows what he has to do and we know what he has to do. We’re falling right behind him. We tell him every day after practice or during the game that we’ve got his back.
“Just make those plays and we’ll be there for him. That’s with any quarterback, as well. But we know Joe’s a special dude. We’re just falling behind him, whatever he gives us.”
While Milton consistently drew praise for his development and commitment to getting better, Eubanks witnessed the same type of growth and work ethic from McNamara, who would ask Eubanks if he wanted to catch passes as early as 6 in the morning. And McNamara certainly made a positive impression in his appearance this past Saturday.
On his first drive, he led Michigan to its only touchdown drive of the game, completing four consecutive passes for 74 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Each throw featured precise accuracy and touch — and seemed to increase in difficulty, from a throw on the run to Eubanks on the sideline to consecutive end-zone fades to Mike Sainristil and Giles Jackson.
“His development has been way out of this world,” Eubanks said. “He’s a mature dude. He takes it personally. He grinds. He’s a very competitive dude when it comes to trying to outwork somebody. He works on his craft every day after practice.
“He’s definitely a gamer. He’s a dude.”
For Milton and McNamara’s teammates, this week’s practices could invoke some déjà vu. These two, after all, competed against one another throughout the summer. Now, they’ll do so again.
“When one makes a play, the other makes the same exact play or even better,” Eubanks said. “It’s hard to tell the difference between the two. It’s amazing just seeing two dudes compete. Right now, as an offensive unit, we’re behind either one of those guys, so it doesn’t really matter who is in there.”