IOWA CITY, Iowa — Quarterback Cade McNamara has many adjectives associated with his playing style, and most of them revolve around his intangibles.
Hard. Clever. Driven. focused. Disciplined. The one description he most often follows is leader. That’s how he was characterized in Michigan, and that’s what he hopes to become after his January move to Iowa. This is how his former teammates remember him best.
“Cade was the commander on our offense, making the right plays and making the right decisions based on down and distance,” said former Michigan defensive end Mike Morris of the NFL Combine. “He was great at situational football. He was probably one of the smartest people with the (highest) IQ on our team. He’s an amazing person.”
“Cade was just a really good leader,” said former Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell. “Cade is the reason I wake up every morning and make my bed.”
McNamara (6ft 1, 206lbs) found athletic success in Michigan, most notably in 2021 when he led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title and a place in the college football playoffs. That year, McNamara threw for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes. While those numbers were efficient for a run-first program with a stellar defense, they weren’t dynamic.
Behind McNamara was borderline five-star quarterback JJ McCarthy, who saw extended action in 2021. The fans wanted the elite perspective to play, and McNamara became a roadblock in that journey. In 2022, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh opted for a rotation between the two that ended three games into the season when McNamara suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. McCarthy led the Wolverines to a second straight Big Ten title, and McNamara chose to become a graduate transfer. He waited until after the regular season because he was elected team captain and he didn’t want to “disrespect” his teammates.
McNamara earned the respect of his teammates in 2020, a memorable year in Michigan football history. The Wolverines finished 2-4, opting not to play their last three games due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. McNamara’s leadership helped the team weather this season and put them on track for 2021.
“Staying power and the ability to be that kind of game handler,” said former Michigan tight end Luke Schoonmaker of McNamara’s strengths. “I also think composure because his situation was unique, the quarterback position. I think in 2020 he made a big impact for us and he’s really been able to step into that role as a leader ever since.”
“This season has been very tough and really gave me the perspective of never wanting to be 2-4 again in my life,” McNamara said. “That was really the biggest thing I took away from this season. But my Michigan career is behind me and I’m ready to use everything I learned there to make myself a better player for Iowa.”
McNamara wants to be seen as more than just a game manager, and Iowa will give him that opportunity.
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When it comes to understanding McNamara, just look at where he grew up. In Reno, Nevada, known as “the greatest little city on earth,” McNamara was a four-star recruit and was ranked the No. 8 quarterback nationally by 247Sports. He initially committed to Notre Dame and let Alabama compete before settling on Michigan. But a sense of being overlooked or being overstretched in the shadow of California permeated his mindset.
“When I was younger, through my high school years and even middle school, I just knew all my competition was somewhere else,” McNamara said. “I knew the guys in Los Angeles had offers before I had them and that threw a spanner in the works for me. Every single day I’ve been attacking, what if one of these guys is working today and I’m resting? That kind of urgency and competitiveness was instilled in me from an early age.”
McNamara’s will to compete was the focus of the games in Michigan and how he struggled in practice.
“I love the guy,” said former Michigan punter Brad Robbins. “One of my favorite stories about him is that we have to do chin holds in the weight room. You need to hold the bar like a neutral grip, and you need to keep your chin over the bar for as long as possible. And we all know Cade won’t always be the sportiest guy in the room. But he’s trying really damn hard to be that guy and he’s definitely going to give it his all.
“One day we were doing chin holds – it’s a competition every week – and they pitted you against a guy with similar numbers. I know that the strongest player on the team lasts about two and a half minutes, three minutes. I think Cade lasts about 50 seconds. And they put him up against another quarterback who could have kicked him … but could have stayed longer. I’m watching Cade there in my group and he’s fighting. And he tries to look at the other guy and he can’t hold on and he falls over.
“Another quarterback watched Cade fall, and he just fell. My message to Cade was, “Dude, I’d add 100 of you to my team. I know you will give me 110 percent every time. I take you above everyone else. The guy saw you fall and he fell immediately. He didn’t push himself as far as he could like you pushed yourself until your arms gave out.
So McNamara is pushing now – within reason. He underwent surgery on his right knee last fall following multiple injuries and has dedicated himself to training and learning a new playbook. McNamara regularly throws at receivers and tight ends but remains limited as he works through his rehab. He goes through the footwork and takes the drops on every game in the playbook aside from throwing on the run. McNamara already has chemistry with tight end Erick All, who joined him in the move from Michigan.
In this ordeal, McNamara learns another acquired skill: patience.
“As a competitor, I just want to keep going,” he said. “I want my injury to be taken care of faster. I want to be back on the field. But what my injury taught me is that I can set very short-term goals. Can we gain that much freedom of movement in half a week? Or can I get about 80 degrees of flex by the end of the week? This injury has taught me many things and one of them is this mindset.”
McNamara vows to be ready for spring training – which begins March 21 for Iowa – and to participate in team activities. But he adds coaches will be careful to avoid possible damage to his knee.
hardness and endurance
Iowa acts like a calloused, gray-bearded construction worker sitting in a pub at a roadhouse. It doesn’t have the size, frame or pedigree of its competitors, but when it’s time to fight, buckle up. McNamara fits right into this mindset.
“I think this team just has a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality,” McNamara said. “There’s just no requirement. There’s an eagerness, there’s a sense of urgency with this team that might want to win. And that just fits with everything, with all the emotions and ambitions that I have in me as a player. We’re in a really good place right now and I can’t wait to get out there and compete and see it on the football pitch.”
The Hawkeyes need more production at quarterback this season after one of the worst offensive seasons in Big Ten history. Last year, the Hawkeyes ranked 130th nationwide in total offense at an average of 251.6 yards per game, 11 yards worse than the Big Ten’s previous low (Rutgers 2017) since Kirk Ferentz took over in Iowa in 1999. The passing game has suffered over the past three seasons with 28 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, and the running game averaged 2.9 yards per rush in 2022. The defense led Iowa to an 8-5 overall record.
It’s not just the quarterback’s fault, which is why Iowa hit the transfer portal hard this offseason. The Hawkeyes’ offense added McNamara, All, wide receiver Seth Anderson, quarterback Deacon Hill, guard Rusty Feth and tackle Daijon Parker. The coaching staff have come under additional scrutiny over the fall in production, particularly offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. But he’s staying put, and McNamara looks forward to working with him. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw 68 touchdown passes from 2017 to 2019 under Brian Ferentz.
During a 12-game winning streak of 2020-21, Iowa outscored opponents 403-161 (33.6-13.4). But in their last 21 games, the Hawkeyes have only outscored their opponents 369-364 (17.5-17.3).
Additionally, former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Jon Budmayr is now Iowa’s senior special assistant to the head coach. Budmayr initially recruited McNamara, and they developed a strong relationship, although the quarterback chose Michigan. Though they have limited interactions due to NCAA offseason rules, McNamara is gaining comfort with the scheme by the day.
“I saw the potential. I’ve played in Iowa before and I know what the brand means,” said McNamara. “I think part of that was Bud and coaches Brian and KF really showed me where I could fit into this thing and the impact I could have.
“A big part of my growth has been my new teammates. They’ve taught me so much already and as soon as the regulations fall, as soon as we get into bouncy ball, I can’t wait to learn more from Coach Bud and Coach Brian.”
In Michigan, McNamara has been seen as a janitor. In Iowa, he can increase offense. In 2021 he completed 64 percent of his passes. The last time an Iowa quarterback reached that number was Ricky Stanzi in 2010. That number might draw attention in Iowa City if it hasn’t reached 57 percent since 2019, but it’s not McNamara’s goal.
“I know 64 percent was decent for me, but I definitely feel like I have a higher ceiling,” he said.
McNamara, 22, is more than ready to write the next chapter in his football career. His experiences have shaped him into both a leader and a follower. His perseverance in the face of adversity and injury makes him a student as well as a teacher. Iowa’s success on the field will depend on his brain and brawn.
That’s what happened in Michigan. That’s how it can happen in Iowa.
“He’s a Big Ten championship quarterback, I mean, that’s pretty much all that needs to be said,” said former Michigan center Olu Oluwatimi. “All the hate or flak that Cade is getting I feel is unjustified. He lowers his head, he grinds. He obviously has physical attributes or he wouldn’t have been drafted to Michigan, and he never would have passed the ball to guys and would have become a starting quarterback.
“My leadership role will come pretty organically,” McNamara said. “I just do everything to work as hard as possible and earn the respect of my teammates. Honestly, everyone here has been so kind to me. I don’t even feel like the new guy anymore. I feel part of this team.”
(Top photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)