Leading one of the historic programs in college football comes with weighty expectations. Damonte Ranch High product Cade McNamara grew up wanting that responsibility.
"The magnitude of being a Michigan Wolverine is big, and I think that's something I've always known as a kid," the Reno native said on Tuesday's NSN Daily. "There's particular schools that are national fan base powerhouses that you just know of and know they're going to be good. And I think knowing that growing up, knowing that Michigan is one of those and my dream being to play for a school like that, it's a tremendous honor to wear the winged helmet."
In 2020, Michigan suffered through a rare losing season, its first in the Jim Harbaugh era, putting the Wolverines coach squarely on the hot seat. One of the few glimmers of positivity during last year's 2-4 campaign was McNamara, who in his second season at Michigan took over as the team's starting quarterback and played well enough to excite those in Ann Arbor.
McNamara won the starting quarterback job entering this season, beating out five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. And after starting this season unranked in the preseason poll, Michigan has been one of the nation's great surprises, going 6-0 and rising to No. 6 in the most recent AP Top 25. Michigan has opened the season with six straight wins for the first time since 2016 when it finished 10-3 overall and played in the Orange Bowl.
While Harbaugh's Wolverines are using a run-the-ball-and-play-good-defense formula, McNamara has expertly guided Michigan's offense, hitting some timely deep balls while limiting turnovers. Still technically a freshman despite being in his third year with the Wolverines, the 21-year-old McNamara has completed 72-of-119 passes (60.5 percent) for 986 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He's also run for a score.
"And really it's the same players as last year," McNamara said of Michigan's massive improvement. "By the end of the season last year, we finished with the guys that are playing right now. There's not anything super physical or what we're doing on and off the field. Obviously we're executing at a really high level, but I think it's the work that we put in this offseason. It's the the mental shift, the environment shift in Schembechler Hall that's led to us seeing success."
Michigan has been dominant this season, out-scoring opponents, 231-93, in its six games, a scoring margin of plus-23 points per game. The Wolverines have had a couple of close affairs, including a 20-13 win over Rutgers and 32-29 win at Nebraska. After playing in front of almost no fans last season, his first as an active player in college, one of the things McNamara has most loved about this season is playing in front of tens of thousands of people.
"Lincoln was an insane atmosphere," McNamara said of the Nebraska game that featured 87,380 fans. "At times it was very loud and really just the overall atmosphere was pretty crazy."
Each of Michigan's four home games this season have had crowds of at least 106,000 people, a far cry from his playing time at Damonte Ranch before a couple hundred people.
"It's amazing," McNamara said of the crowd support. "Especially this year we had the 'maize out' against Washington, which is by far the best atmosphere I've ever played in, the best fan base. The whole combination of it was amazing, and I'm just really honored and just really thankful to be able to be a part of that experience."
In addition to his on-field production, McNamara has been lauded for his leadership, something that dates back to his time in Northern Nevada. That's been a change from those who preceded him as Michigan's starting quarterback, and it's one of the biggest reasons he won the job in training camp. McNamara recently took his offensive line out for dinner during the bye week to thank them for keeping a clean pocket, one of many ways he's tried to uplift his teammates.
"In terms of leadership, you have to establish yourself, and I think over the course of the last couple of years, I've established myself as a guy who doesn't take days off and who is willing to do everything it takes to win for this team whether I was starting quarterback or not," McNamara said. "I think that really established my voice and earned some respect for my teammates. And really the last thing I needed was to show that I can get it done on game day, and I was able to do that last year.
"I think going into this offseason, prior to this season, I was able to use my voice and really play how I wanted to play and lead how I want to lead because I feel like my leadership style, you have to be the starting quarterback to really demand more out of your teammates while demanding the most out of yourself. As the way things have shaped up. I'm just happy to be a part of this team and be able to be a good voice for my teammates."
McNamara also has blazed the right path for his family. His younger brother, Kyle, is a wide receiver at Western Kentucky after briefly walking on at Michigan. His other brother, Jake, is a high school senior quarterback who has committed to Colorado State. His father, Gary, was a star baseball player at Fresno State who was on the Wolf Pack baseball team's coaching staff in addition to serving as Galena High's head coach. McNamara said there isn't some magic bullet that has led to all three of the kids in his family becoming Division I football players.
"First off, we knew it would take extra for us to get to where we wanted to go, and I don't think there was some special ingredient in terms of something physical or a God-given trait," McNamara said. "I think it's a combination of the job that my parents did to raise us and to develop mindsets that are willing to work no matter the stakes. And I think I've done my best to show my brothers the way, and I think that they're reaching to achieve their dreams in their own way, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
The highest-rated and most accomplished high school quarterback in Northern Nevada history, McNamara also holds Reno close to his heart. While his family moved to the Nashville area after McNamara's graduation from Damonte Ranch, the quarterback wants to be a reminder that kids from Northern Nevada can play for some of the best schools in the nation.
He said Damonte Ranch's 2016 Northern Region championship his sophomore season — the Mustangs were down 31-7 at halftime to the five-time defending regional champs — is "a lifetime memory" and one of the three best days of his life.
"I don't forget where I came from at all," McNamara said. "The 775, that's hometown. For me to be able to represent Nevada and to be one of the few in college football to represent Nevada, it's awesome. I'm doing my best to show off to the nation what Nevada players can do."
You can watch Cade McNamara's full NSN Daily interview below.