Jay Norvell is putting Nevada's offense in the hands of a freshman.
Carson Strong, a redshirt freshman, will start the Wolf Pack's season opener Aug. 30 against Purdue, which is the second Big 10 team to play at Mackay Stadium. Norvell made the announcement during Saturday's Blitz dinner booster fundraiser. Strong beat out Malik Henry, a former Florida State player known for his time on Netflix's Last Chance U, for the starting job after senior Cristian Solano broke his throwing hand during the team's second practice. A hamstring injury has limited Henry in recent weeks.
Strong will be the first freshmen to start at quarterback in Nevada's season opener since Mo Jones did so in 1998, a 48-6 loss to Oregon State.
Strong played in one game as a true freshman last season, a rout of FCS school Portland State. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder completed his only pass attempt (for four yards) and also had one run for four more yards. From Vacaville, Calif., Strong missed his senior season of high school because of knee surgery, so the Purdue game will mark his first start since 2016. As a prep junior, Strong completed 184-of-266 passes (69.2 percent) for 2,732 yards, 26 touchdowns and four interceptions in 10 games at Wood High. He also was a high-level basketball player who averaged 18.1 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game and tallied 21 double-doubles as a junior.
Strong's knee injury in high school allowed him to graduate early and enroll at Nevada in the spring semester of 2018, meaning he has a little more experience than your average redshirt freshman after going through two spring camps and two fall camps. Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme expressed confidence in Strong's ability to get the job done earlier in the fall.
“The thing is he’s got great energy and he’s really smart," Mumme said. "He’s going to work hard and he’s always going to be in the office bugging me to go over film and go over plays. He knows it. He just has to execute it. With emotion, that’s one of those things where it can go either way. You show your emotion, your excitement for the game and being out there on the field and your teammates see it and feed off it. That’s the big bonus of it. The flipside is you don’t want to see the other side of it when something bad happens you don’t want to get down on yourself or have bad body language, which Coach Norvell talks about. I tell him, let’s stay in the peaks and not have too many valleys. If we could do that, that’d be really good.”
Strong was named Nevada's offensive scout team player of the year last season. He will be the second freshman to start at quarterback under Norvell after Kaymen Cureton started two games as a true freshman early in the 2017 campaign. Cody Fajardo (2011) and Colin Kaepernick (2007) also started at quarterback as redshirt freshmen in recent seasons.
In spring camp, Strong talked about his love of the game. He's drawn high marks from staff and teammates for his work ethic.
"I have fun every single day playing football," Strong said. "I've never complained once about practice. I just love it no matter what. Just coming out here and competing, that's just what I love to do, so I'm having an absolute blast. Coach Mumme gives us a lot of freedom. If we see something, we can call it anytime we want. Just go out and play football. Coach Norvell says all the time, we want to do five things really well rather than 500 things OK. We just go out there and keep it simple and have fun with the game, and that's how it's meant to be."
In Purdue, Strong will face a defense that ranked 82nd in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 30 points per game. The Boilermakers gave up 284.7 passing yards per game, the third most in the nation. Strong will be surrounded by one of the Mountain West's better groups of receivers and running backs, although Nevada will be breaking in three new starting offensive linemen.
"We really want a patient, smart guy and a guy who’s going to run the offense, protect the football and show maturity," Norvell said earlier in camp about what he wants out of his quarterback. "That’s what we’re challenging those guys to do every day.”
Strong will succeed Ty Gangi, who completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 3,331 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season before graduating. During Nevada's media day Thursday, Strong said his goals were simple.
“If I’m the guy who’s going to be starting, the only thing I want to do is go out there and win," Strong said. "I think all of the quarterbacks can go out there and win games. If it’s me, that’s my only focus.
“Our No. 1 goal is winning this conference. We think we can do it. We have a great defense and a lot of play-makers on offense.”