Nevada's starting quarterback race has become a war of attrition.
First, Griffin Dahn left the team in the spring when it became clear he was down on the depth chart. Then, Cristian Solano broke his hand in the second practice of fall camp. And finally, Malik Henry suffered a hamstring injury that limited him in the Wolf Pack's first scrimmage of training camp. Add them all up and Nevada has only two fully healthy and eligible quarterbacks on the team in Carson Strong (a redshirt freshman) and Austin Kirksey (a true freshman).
And with the way Strong performed during Saturday's scrimmage (three touchdowns against zero interceptions), there's minimal doubt on who will be starting for Nevada in the season opener against Purdue on Aug. 30. That will almost certainly be Strong, although coach Jay Norvell said Monday he'll stick with his original plan of naming a starting quarterback halfway through fall camp (after Friday's second and final scrimmage).
“We just want to play it out," Norvell said. "Obviously Carson is getting the majority of the reps, but it’s important we go through that process of training camp and working through that every day. Next week we’ll start working for Purdue and will break up in scouts and will be a little more specific. He’s still competing. He has a lot to learn every day. He comes out here and the situation has changed. Every day is a learning experience for him and he’s got to continue to press and finish up camp this week.”
Henry strained his right hamstring in the middle of last week. It's not considered a major injury, and Nevada is taking precaution to make sure Henry will be available against Purdue if needed.
“It’s day-by-day right now, but we most want him to be ready for Purdue," Norvell said. "The most important thing right now is to get that position as healthy as we can and have him continue to learn. There are a lot of things we can do with him inside with the virtual reality and things like that to get his reps. We’ll just be smart with him until he’s healthy.”
It seems likely Henry won't be a full-go in Friday's scrimmage, but Norvell said he's hopeful the quarterback will be ready to suit up against Purdue. But Henry's injury, coupled with Strong's solid play in training camp, has all but ended the race for the starting job for the season opener. That title will almost certainly go to Strong. Despite the hamstring strain, Henry has been able to participate in most of practice with the live settings being the only place he's limited.
"He’s able to do the majority of our practice," Norvell said. "It’s just hard for him to sprint right now. But he’s still getting work in and an understanding of our scheme.”
Henry's injury leaves just two fully healthy quarterbacks who can play this season in Strong and Kirksey. The roster also includes Hamish McClure, a transfer from Sacramento State. The 6-foot, 190-pound McClure completed 1-of-4 passes for 11 yards and ran eight times for 32 yards and a touchdown as a freshman for the Hornets last season. He transferred to Nevada in the offseason to be reunited with his father, Angus, the Wolf Pack's offensive line coach. Nevada has filed a waiver for McClure to be eligible this season, but it has not been approved yet.
“Not right now he’s not," Norvell said of McClure being eligible in 2019. "We’re still working at that. And Austin has gotten a lot of reps. He’s going to have to play this year. We’re going to try and play him just like we played Carson last year and get him some experience. We’re not going to save any of them. They all have to get ready to play.”
Solano's injury was initially expected to keep him out until the start of Mountain West play in early October, but Norvell said the senior could be back sooner. Assuming Strong remains healthy and plays well, it appears he'll have the job long term, but he'll have to learn on the job as a redshirt freshman.
“The biggest thing is just consistency," Norvell said. "You’ve got to have good days all the time. When you’re the starter, you have that responsibility of practicing well all the time. That comes with maturity, it comes with experience and it comes with a level of mental strength. That’s just something that happens over the long haul. It’s not just something that happens over a weekend where you have one great day and then relax. You have to continue to push and execute every day.”
Norvell said he has no apprehension starting a freshman quarterback against Purdue and Oregon, two Power 5 programs, to start his career. In his first season at the helm of the Wolf Pack, Norvell started true freshman quarterback Kaymen Cureton for two games, including one against Washington State.
“Not really," Norvell said of whether he had an issue starting a freshman against elite competition. "Not if the kid is prepared well. The most important thing in today’s game is just being prepared and doing the things you have to do in practice and meetings to give yourself a chance to play well. As long as he’s doing that, I’d have no problem at all with him playing.”
Dom Peterson bangs up knee
Nevada didn't get out of its scrimmage injury free as starting defensive lineman Dom Peterson tweaked his knee, which could jeopardize his availability against Purdue.
“He just got twisted up in a pile Saturday and we’re just grateful it wasn’t worse," Norvell said. "It could have been a season-ending injury, but it’s not quite that bad. We’ll just kind of see. He’s kind of day-to-day right now and we’ll see how he progresses.”
Asked if there's a chance Peterson could miss the first game, Norvell said: “It’s a possibility. It’s a possibility. That’s still up in the air right now whether he’ll be back by then. We’re just happy it wasn’t worse than it was, and I’m hoping in the next couple of weeks at some time we should get him back.”
Devonte Lee making progress
Nevada has received some good news on the injury front in the form of Devonte Lee, the Wolf Pack's short-yardage specialist who is working his way back from a torn ACL.
“I’m hoping he’ll be back way sooner than they first anticipated," Norvell said. "They first thought was maybe November and he’s quite ahead of schedule right now. He’s doing a lot more running. The hardest thing for those guys is to change direction. Running straight head comes back quicker. But he’s a situational back for us and the sooner we can get him back the better.”
As a true freshman in 2018, Lee rushed 45 times for 193 yards and seven touchdowns.