Jim Harbaugh knew exactly what he was doing. It hurt like hell, but he had to know.
Michigan conducted a quarterback competition two weeks into the season that included the possibility of incumbent starter Cade McNamara being sent to the bench. There weren't many more accomplished quarterbacks in college football last year.
In leading Michigan to its first Big Ten championship in 17 years and its first College Football Playoff berth ever while improving to 14-2 in his career as a starter, McNamara more than established himself. He was a Michigan Man.
Or so he thought. McNamara was also loyal, a leader voted captain by his teammates yet destined for the bench in 2022. McNamara might have been Harbaugh's best quarterback at Michigan, but now he's the best backup in the Big Ten -- maybe the entire country -- playing behind the guy who he backed up last season, sophomore J.J. McCarthy.
Next to no one is surprised. In today's altered quarterback culture, talent evaluation must be mixed with winning, the reality of the transfer portal, and in some cases, job security.
"As I've been saying, we've got two good quarterbacks, two championship quarterbacks," Harbaugh said.
Yes, but for how long?
McCarthy was the No. 5 quarterback in the Class of 2021, according to 247Sports. If he didn't get the job, long-established history suggests McCarthy was a likely transfer candidate. He has two years of eligibility remaining after this season.
That might be all you need to know about the Michigan quarterback battle because, well, McNamara (No. 15) wasn't a top-five prospect when he enrolled in 2019.
Using that top-five delineation, if McCarthy was anywhere close to as talented as McNamara, Harbaugh couldn't afford not to elevate the younger prospect.
Among the quarterbacks rated top five at their position by 247Sports through recruiting classes spanning the last 20 years (2002-21), 46 of 100 transferred at least once. Seven transferred multiple times.
The reasons ranged from the obvious to the obtuse: playing time, changing positions, even changing sports.
Call it what you want -- impatience, entitlement, free will or free agency -- the numbers show the process was well established before the transfer portal debuted in October 2018. (The one-time transfer exemption was not legislated until August 2021.)
All of five of the top-rated quarterbacks in the Class of 2016 eventually transferred. Since the portal was established, half of the top five have left (10 of 20).
"In their world of recruiting, they've always been the guys," former Arizona, Texas A&M and Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said of top quarterback prospects. "The combination of that, their handlers, their coaches, their trainers -- and then the parents start believing they're the best ever. They're not only preparing for their own games; they're watching everybody else in the country."
It's sometimes a weekly juggling act that has recruitniks, coaches, fans and even the players themselves constantly looking outside the program for the next best thing.
Harbaugh took a unique approach by starting McNamara in Week 1 vs. Colorado State and McCarthy in Week 2 vs. Hawaii. This before naming McCarthy the starter for Week 3 vs. UConn -- and beyond.
A Charmin-soft nonconference schedule allowed Harbaugh to basically evaluate his quarterbacks in super-scrimmages. The Rams and Warriors went down by a combined 90 points to the Wolverines.
McCarthy earned the job after completing 11 of 12 passes for 229 yards against Hawaii. He was already perceived to have better legs and a stronger arm than McNamara, a former four-star prospect from Reno, Nevada.
"By merit, he's earned that," Harbaugh said of McCarthy.
It's just the bottom-line coldness of the process. McNamara had patiently waited for his turn behind Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. After being sacked in the second half against Hawaii, he heard scattered boos.
Harbaugh was familiar with that bottom line. While leading the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, he demoted Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick. At the time, Smith was completing 70% of his passes. Kaepernick went on to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
"Very similar," Harbaugh said of the current situation at Michigan. "They were both playing great."
With the one-time transfer exemption now in place, roster choices become even tougher. The transfer environment almost resembles cut day. If McCarthy didn't win the job before the season, he no doubt would have joined those transfer statistics. The five-star prospect from suburban Chicago was rated fifth nationally in 2021 behind Quinn Ewers (Texas), Caleb Williams (USC), Sam Huard (Washington) and Brock Vandagriff (Georgia).
Ewers (Ohio State) and Williams (Oklahoma) have already transferred. Huard and Vandagriff are presently backups.
"I think you're going to see, more than any other position, transfer quarterbacks becoming the new thing for these lesser schools," said Bud Elliott, 247Sports national recruiting expert.
Among those 46 top-flight quarterback transfers, only 15 transferred below the Power Five level be it into the Group of Five, FCS or Divisions II-III. What Elliott suggests is that top quarterbacks are showing more of a willingness to join crowded quarterback rooms.
Ewers signed with Ohio State after reclassifying out of high school in part to chase name, image and likeness opportunities. He had little opportunity to play with C.J. Stroud ahead of him, but there was another opportunity.
"If [Ewers] doesn't win the job, he's [still] been coached by Ryan Day," Elliott said. "He could transfer out easily. The whole path to playing is of lesser importance because of the transfer portal. I just think you're going to see kids commit to schools that they don't really have an obvious path to playing time.
"If they don't make it [they'll transfer]. It makes sense, right? They want to play. But why sell yourself short if you know you're going to have other options. Anybody will take an Ohio State quarterback right now."
There is no immediate indication what McNamara is thinking, although he can't be pleased. After this season, he has two years of eligibility remaining.
"We can't let [the possibility of transferring] be in our decision making," said Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who has taken an approach similar to that employed by Harbaugh.
USC transfer Jaxson Dart and sophomore Luke Altmyer have each started a game for the Rebels through their first two weeks. No starter has been announced for Ole Miss' showdown in Week 3 against Georgia Tech.
"I realize [transferring is] out there, a possibility now with kids," Kiffin added. "I can't let that be how we decide or that being a factor."
During Big Ten Media Days this summer, Day joked that he might have the most transfer experience regarding quarterbacks. Since he arrived at Ohio State as offensive coordinator in 2017, Day has coached Tate Martell, Justin Fields, Joe Burrow, Jack Miller III and Ewers.
Martell (No. 5, 2017) eventually transferred to UNLV and Miami before retiring. Fields (No. 2, 2018) transferred in from Georgia to start for the Buckeyes. Burrow (No. 19, 2015) famously transferred to LSU, won a national title and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Miller (No. 27, 2020) transferred to Florida ahead of this season. Ewers (No. 1, 2021) had his year in residency.
Day had those in the mix with notables J.T. Barrett (No. 10, 2013), Dwayne Haskins (No. 8, 2016) and Stroud (No. 3, 2020) all staying and starting for the Buckeyes.
Among those 100 top-five from the last 20 years, legacies endure. Alabama's Bryce Young (No. 1, 2020) has won a national championship. He played Saturday against both Ewers and Texas' Hudson Card (No. 4, 2020).
Three have won Heisman Trophies: Young, Tim Tebow (No. 3, 2006), Cam Newton (No. 5, 2007). Twenty-six of 85 have played in the NFL through the 2018 class. (Some players in the 2019-21 classes are still in college.)
Among the top five from 2016, who all transferred, two played in the NFL: Jacob Eason (No. 2), Feleipe Franks (No. 5). One-time Florida State signee Malik Henry (No. 4) became famous as the centerpiece of one of Netflix's earliest documentary successes, "Last Chance U." K.J. Costello (No. 3), who joined Stanford and transferred to Mississippi State, set the SEC single-game passing record against LSU in his debut for the Bulldogs in 2020.
Perhaps the most famous quarterback in that class remains Patterson, the top-rated quarterback in 2016. In transferring from Ole Miss to Michigan, Patterson -- with the help of attorney Tom Mars -- basically created the modern transfer environment. Mars aggressively fought the NCAA and Ole Miss for a waiver from the then-year-in-residence requirement. In a drawn out, complicated process, Patterson eventually started for Michigan where he threw for 5,600 yards and 45 touchdowns in two seasons.
Even more importantly, Mars revealed the legal blueprint for a waiver appeal. With the one-time transfer exemption now in place, waiver requests are now only required if an undergraduate transfers more than once.
It's also may be a reason why the NCAA Board of Directors last month did not vote in the concept of unlimited transfers within the five-year window of eligibility. With the waiver environment, that concept basically already exists.
"That was the catalyst for what's been called 'free agency' in college football," Mars said of the Patterson situation. "This hasty rule change unintentionally put the NCAA on a slippery slope that allowed creative lawyers to obtain a waiver for players under almost any circumstances.
"The rest is history."