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1,000 Words: Jay Norvell faces toughest decision of his Nevada tenure

Jay Norvell
Jay Norvell has three capable quarterbacks, but which one will he pick to lead the Wolf Pack? (Nick Beaton/Nevada athletics)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray is known to be a bit wordy, so we're giving him 1,000 words (but no more than that) to share his thoughts from the week that was in the world of sports.

* AS THE HEAD COACH of a Division I football program, Nevada’s Jay Norvell has to make hundreds of decisions a week. Some are major; some are minor. Sometimes he makes the right call; sometimes the wrong call. Just like every college coach. But the decision that looms over him and the Wolf Pack football program heading into the 2019 season is the biggest of his three-year tenure in Reno: Who will be Nevada’s starting quarterback? The Wolf Pack has solid momentum coming off an eight-win, bowl-winning 2018 campaign and can’t afford a slow start this season as it looks to build a fan base that has shrunk in massive numbers in recent years. Norvell needs to make the right call from the start.

* THE WOLF PACK HAS THREE legitimate options behind center in Cristian Solano (the senior who has waited his turn), Malik Henry (the former hotshot recruit) and Carson Strong (the talented freshman). Each showed during Nevada’s spring game – and more importantly over the entire spring camp – they are capable of running an offense, but only one can start. And while it might be tempting to give each some series early in the year, Nevada shouldn't take that path. Whoever wins the job must be able to play without looking over his shoulder. And the Wolf Pack can’t afford to take the multiple-quarterback route given who its first two games are against: Power 5 schools Purdue and Oregon.

* EACH QUARTERBACK HAS HIS pros and cons, and Solano, the frontrunner entering spring camp, did nothing over the last several weeks to lose that distinction. But Strong and Henry have higher ceilings and more longevity at Nevada, with Strong having four seasons of eligibility remaining while Henry has two. And if the race is close, coaches tend to go with the youngster since that player will be able to grow into your system and continue to improve. Typically, you opt for the quarterback who will be there long term if things are a coin flip. This might not be a coin flip in the minds of Nevada’s coaches, but things are really tight. You could make the case for each quarterback, so let’s do that.

* THE CASE FOR SOLANO: As a sixth-year senior (if we include his grayshirt season), he’s paid his dues and earned a shot to get on the field. Beyond that theme of loyalty, Solano is the best runner of Nevada’s quarterbacks (by far). The Pack’s run game would be more dynamic with Solano at the helm, although the pass game might not be as strong. You’d probably see a lot of the screen game and similar play-calling to what we saw from Nevada with Ty Gangi, with a few more read-option runs to use Solano’s legs. The SoCal native also is the most experienced at the FBS level (one career start) and seems to have support from the team.

* THE CASE FOR STRONG: While he will be a redshirt freshman, Strong enrolled at Nevada early so he has two spring camps under his belt and is fully up to speed in the offense. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he’s the team’s biggest quarterback and arguably the strongest arm. He truly has a special arm, although he’s the least mobile of those vying for the job. With Nevada rebuilding its offensive line, mobility is important. Strong can really get the ball down the field, although his belief in his arm also could lead to more interceptions. As the youngest in the group, he’s the future at this position for Nevada. Why not start that future now?

* THE CASE FOR HENRY: A former five-star recruit who began his career at Florida State, Henry has the best pedigree. He’s a very talented player, although he’s also been an enigma, spending time at six schools in the last six years. He seems to have his head on straight and knows this is likely his final chance to turn around his career. Henry has a natural charisma teammates are drawn to. The leadership skills are there if he can hone them in. And he has the best mix of arm talent and athleticism, with Norvell lauding his ability to throw on the run. But given his history, does Nevada trust him to run a team?

* I’M A HIGH-UPSIDE kind of guy. Any of these three could lead Nevada to a bowl game. I don’t have any doubts about that. But which one has the ability to lead Nevada to a Mountain West championship game? Which one has the ability to make this a season Wolf Pack fans won’t soon forget? That’s the question I’d be asking if I were Norvell. The West Division is open this season. Fresno State remains the team to beat, but the Bulldogs lost as much production from its roster as any team in the nation. San Diego State also took a step back last year and has question marks. Hawaii, SJSU and UNLV don’t appear to be title contenders. A path to the title game is there with good quarterback play.

* THE LAST TIME NEVADA HAD a quarterback competition, the thing drug into the team’s fifth game as Gangi, Kaymen Cureton and David Cornwell each got auditions as the Wolf Pack settled on Gangi. But it was too late at that point as Nevada started 0-5 (averaging just 20 points per game) before finishing the year going 3-4 (averaging 34 points per game) after it did make a final call at quarterback. It can’t take that long to settle on a starter this time, and I’d argue this decision is more difficult than the last one given how close the competition was in the spring. Two years ago, Cornwell was the heavy favorite heading into fall camp before being beat out by Gangi, so history shows us a lot can change over a summer and throughout a fall camp.

* NORVELL HAS SAID ON MULTIPLE occasions he has more talent at quarterback than he did in his first two seasons. I didn’t agree with that initially, but I believe it to be true now. Nevada has three legitimate options, and depth is a good thing. But whittling those three down to one person to lead an offense and a team isn’t always easy (see Fred Gatlin over Chris Vargas; Nick Graziano over Colin Kaepernick; or Tyler Lantrip over Cody Fajardo). Nevada has a strong cast of skill players and talent at quarterback, but it must identify the right trigger-man to lead this team from the start and let him run with the job. Which one will Norvell pick? It's his biggest decision leading Nevada to date.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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