Nevada football has turned the page on Carson Strong as its starting quarterback in the short term – at least for its game Saturday against San Jose State – but the Wolf Pack remains high on the freshman who led the team to a win over Purdue in his first college start.
Malik Henry, a highly touted and well-traveled junior, will start this weekend against San Jose State, taking over for Strong, who moves to the No. 2 slot. Strong started four of Nevada's first five games, including wins over Purdue and Weber State and lopsided losses to Oregon and Hawaii. Strong missed the UTEP game, not starting because of injury (Cristian Solano started that game and played well), but the move to Henry this week was made to spark the offense.
Head coach Jay Norvell said the decision to start Henry was "not difficult at all." But he also gave Strong a vote of confidence in the process.
"I love Carson," Norvell said. "Carson’s fine. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s the future of our program.”
Norvell and Matt Mumme, Nevada's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, remains high on the future of Strong, who looked fantastic in a come-from-behind win over Purdue. In the 34-31 victory, Strong completed 30-of-51 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns with zero turnovers as he rallied Nevada out of a 17-point second-half deficit. In his three starts since then, Strong has averaged 144.7 passing yards per game with six turnovers and zero touchdowns while playing through various bumps and bruises.
“He got the injury in the Purdue game and then he got really dinged up against Oregon and then a little against Weber," Mumme said. "That takes a little bit out of you as a quarterback when you keep getting hit over and over and over again. You want to be able to sit in the pocket, but now you’re thinking, ‘OK, it’s a little bit sketchy and what do I do with it?’ I just keep telling Carson: ‘Son, you’re going to be a great football player. You’re going to be a great football player in this offense. You’re going to be a great player at this school. Sometimes you just have to be a little more patient and let this one go, and let Malik see what he can do.’”
Mumme said Strong was disappointed to lose the starting position, but the staff is focused on getting the Wolf Pack's offense back on track. In Strong's last three starts, Nevada has scored six points (at Oregon), 19 points (against FCS school Weber State) and three points (against Hawaii). Mumme said Strong has been supportive of Henry, the former four-star recruit who will get his first FBS start.
“Without a doubt, he’s done a good job," Mumme said of Strong. "We got through last week and him being pouty after we announced Malik was going to be the guy. He got over that and now he’s out there and trying to help Malik understand some of the reads and progressions because Carson does know it. That’s the biggest thing Carson has over all the guys is the knowledge base. I think he’s accepted his role, but he’ll stay ready.”
Norvell said the Wolf Pack's issues at offensive line played a factor in the decision. Nevada's Union has struggled in pass protection and the Henry is more mobile than Strong, especially considering the freshman's injuries. With the Wolf Pack losing three-year starter Jake Nelson to a broken arm during the loss to Hawaii, Nevada also will be breaking in a new starting left tackle in Miles Beach.
“We just felt like with Malik’s skills – they’re all very different – that he gave us the best chance," Norvell said. "It also allows for Carson to continue to get healed and be the fresh guy that he was the first game of the year. Carson still isn’t quite back. He was very fresh, spry like Bambi the first game and he’s just not the same. He’s getting better. He’s getting back. There’s a lot of things that go into it. Malik is fresh, he’s excited to play and we’re excited to see him play.”
With Nevada playing four quarterbacks in its first four games, it seems unlikely one player retains the job for the rest of the season. As such, Nevada wants Strong to be ready if he's called upon later this season. He'll serve as the backup to Henry on Saturday with Solano the third-string option. Strong's teammates have told him to be ready if he gets another opportunity.
"We’ve talked," senior captain Kaleb Fossum said of his discussions with Strong and Solano. "They’ve been very supportive of Malik. They’re great dudes, they’re tight in that room. I know that they’re ready, they’re prepared for anything to happen. It’s a long football season. Anything can happen, and you never wish bad about anybody but you have to be prepared. As we’ve seen, a lot of guys have played. We’re ready to see what Malik can do. He’ll get his shot. But those guys are ready, too. They’ve been locked in and don’t have a bad attitude, which I really respect them for.”
While Mumme expects bright days ahead for Strong, the decision to start Henry this weekend is about jump-starting a passing game that ranks 115th in efficiency among 130 FBS teams. Nevada also ranks 115th in scoring at 19.8 points per game.
“We need to score points obviously," Mumme said. "That was the big thing coming out of the Hawaii game with Cris and Carson. It was, ‘Guys, if we had gone down and taken it down and scored three or four times just to salvage what the game looked like I would have been happier,’ But at this point, it’s Malik’s turn to take over and we’ll see what happens.”