You couldn’t blame a college coach if he felt a little uneasy going into a season without an experienced quarterback, but Nevada’s Jay Norvell – who is in that exact position in 2019 – has a different feeling.
The team’s third-year head coach said he not only thinks his group of six untested quarterbacks will be up to the challenge. He believes that position could be better in 2019 than it was during his first two seasons at Nevada.
“I think we have more talent at quarterback than we’ve had and we have an opportunity to play a lot better at that position, so we’re excited about that,” Norvell said Tuesday after Nevada's first practice of spring camp.
Nevada must replace departed senior Ty Gangi, who started 26 of the team’s last 30 games over the last three seasons. During that period, Gangi completed 60.2 percent of his attempts for 270.6 passing yards per game with 56 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Whichever quarterback wins Nevada’s starting job in 2019 will do so with almost no FBS experience, although Norvell is confident in the group.
Cristian Solano, a senior, enters the competition as the player to beat. Also in the mix are juniors Griffin Dahn and Malik Henry and freshmen Carson Strong, Austin Kirksey and Hamish McClure, a transfer from Sacramento State whose dad, Angus, is the Wolf Pack’s offensive line coach and assistant head coach.
“I really like that room,” Norvell said. “I like the competitiveness of it. We’ve got a good group. We’ve got three older kids and three younger kids. I think it’s a great mix. We’ve got some experience, guys like Cristian and Griffin who have been here a couple of years and who have been at all of our meetings and practices, so they’ve learned a lot about our system. And we have some great younger kids in Carson and Austin Kirksey and Hamish McClure. Then we have a transfer in Malik Henry who is super talented and learning about our system. It’s a great mix.”
None of the Wolf Pack’s quarterbacks were available to the media after the first practice, so their play will have to speak for them for now. Solano took the No. 1 snaps during Tuesday’s practice, although each quarterback took meaningful snaps and the top candidates should all get reps with the first string.
“We have a definite plan on how to rotate all of our quarterbacks so different days some guys will get more reps than others,” Norvell said. “We saw all of them today and that’s what spring practice is about, getting a lot of reps. Cristian did a great job. He’s been here two years, he’s been in all the meetings and at all of the practices for two years, so he has a comfort level with our offense, which is great.”
Solano is the lone member of Nevada’s six quarterbacks who has an FBS start, that coming last season against Fresno State. In a 21-3 loss, the Wolf Pack’s first home game without a touchdown since 1983. Solano completed 22-of-43 passes for 195 yards and three interceptions, although the Bulldogs’ defense was one of the nation’s best. He also rushed 23 times for 71 yards, his legs being one of his biggest strengths.
Offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, who also is the team’s quarterbacks coach, was happy with his group after Tuesday’s practice, which put the team in several situational drills over the 2 1/2-hour practice.
“I was really impressed with our rhythm and how smooth we ran things,” Mumme said. “I was a little worried it’d be more chaotic with the new quarterbacks getting in there. Cristian did a great job moving the ball down the field and throwing a touchdown pass at the end there. I was really glad to see him capitalize on some of the practice he got in the bowl weeks, especially coming off that Fresno game where he had to play.”
Along with Solano, the top candidates for the job appear to be Strong, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman who doesn’t have Solano’s mobility but has a high-level arm and good release; Dahn, who at 6-5 and 250 pounds has a good blend of running ability and arm strength; and Henry, a talented wildcard who began his career at Florida State but was depicted as a malcontent on Netflix’s Last Chance U.
Linebacker Lucas Weber, a sixth-year senior, said he likes the teamwork he’s seen from the quarterbacks despite the fact they’re all battling for the same job. Weber compared their camaraderie to what he saw from veteran running back Don Jackson when Nevada added talented freshman James Butler a few years back.
“I just like that they compete and the thing that I see is they’re not sticking to themselves doing their own things,” Weber said of Nevada’s quarterbacks. “They all go to the meeting room together and they’re trying to help each other. I really like that. I saw that when I was a freshman, too, with Don and JB when Don kind of put his arm around JB and said, ‘This is how we do it.’ He wasn’t selfish at all. And that’s what they’re all doing. It’s really cool to see they’re all trying to better each other.”
The Wolf Pack’s offense went from scoring 28.1 points per game in 2017 to 31.1 points per game in 2018, although part of that was a result of the Nevada defense being vastly improved and putting the offense in better positions. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranked Nevada’s offense 100th out of 130 FBS teams in 2018, down from 80th the year prior. The Wolf Pack also slipped from 52nd in team passing efficiency in 2017 to 78th last season, so there’s definitely area to improve in the passing game.
It’s unlikely Nevada names a starting quarterback at the end of spring, or even before the season opener to keep the element of surprise alive before kickoff. But Norvell said jobs can be won or lost in the spring. When asked what he’s looking for in his next starter, Mumme said intelligence is a big component.
“They’ve got to be smart,” Mumme said. “We always look at their grades and see how they do in the classroom and make sure they understand that’s a priority for us. Then they have to be great around their teammates. They have to be their teammates’ biggest fan. If they do that, the rest of it will probably fall in place because it’s all about repetition and then going out and executing.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.