If the decision was made purely on talent, Malik Henry would have started Nevada's season opener against Purdue.
Heck, if things were based simply on talent, Henry wouldn't even be at Nevada. He'd be at USC, Notre Dame, Texas, Auburn or Florida State, where he began his college career. He'd be at a big-time school.
Henry's talent has never been an issue. Everything else has been, which is why Henry is a walk-on with the Wolf Pack, which offered Henry the opportunity to put his baggage in the past. And on Saturday, Henry gets his first FBS start.
That seemed like an appropriate time to get his thoughts on finally starting a major-college football game, especially considering Henry was off limits to the media during Nevada's media day in August. Henry was scheduled to talk to the media after Tuesday's practice – the media being three people, nothing too big. But as Henry was told of the media request as he walked off the practice field alongside offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Mumme, Henry muttered, "I'm not talking" to the Wolf Pack's assistant director of media relations without breaking a stride while heading to the locker room.
In his place, Mumme went in front of the cameras outwardly embarrassed by what just happened. Now, it is Henry's prerogative whether he wants to speak to the media. After all, he was on a reality television show – Netflix's Last Chance U – for two seasons and almost certainly didn't like how he was portrayed – as immature, mopey, combative, uncoachable and generally a lost cause. That's why he had to walk on at Nevada. No school was willing to take the risk of putting him on the team.
He could be leery of the media. He might want to focus on the task at hand, which is playing San Jose State on Saturday. I take no personal offense from the "I'm not talking" blow-by, although it's rare. I've never seen that before during my 10 years covering Wolf Pack football. But it felt like a scene out of Last Chance U, a guy with NFL talent but questionable – to put it nicely – leadership skills, a guy who head coach Jay Norvell said last week still had to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates, a guy who started to take his academic and film study habits more seriously only after he was named Nevada's starter.
This column is not about tearing down Henry. I hope he does turn the page. I hope he uses the opportunity Nevada has offered to fulfill his potential. I hope he does everything required off the field to allow his talent to shine. I hope he is successful. There's nothing better than a redemption story. But there's a risk associated with putting Nevada's offense in his hands, which is why he was the fourth quarterback on the team to see the field and the third in line to start. He had not been fulfilling his off-field duties.
Nevada's offense, which has failed to score a touchdown in two of its four games against FBS opponents, needs a spark. If you argued the Wolf Pack's desperation granted Henry a start, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Nevada is betting on his talent, which is immense. Nevada is banking on his NFL-caliber arm and his excellent athleticism. Nevada is hoping those things overcome the clear weaknesses he's displayed off the field prior to his time at Nevada.
"I’ve had a lot of great conversations with Malik," Norvell said. "We talk about a lot of things besides football, and I really think he’s a misunderstood guy. He’s earned his opportunity here. I’m excited to watch him play. I really am.”
Henry's teammates have largely been publicly supportive. Senior captain Kaleb Fossum, one of Nevada's top receivers, said reality television can play a lot of tricks on people. Fossum said he's had "zero problems" with Henry, adding his dad has watched Henry on the sidelines during home games and seen him helping the team's other quarterbacks.
“He’s had a great attitude towards us," Fossum said. "If we give him a shot, he’s going to do what he’s going to do with it and be prepared. Hopefully we go out there and execute for him Saturday.”
Mumme, who has had the sometimes exasperating challenge of wrangling Henry since his January arrival, raved about his pupil's talent.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior "has a great arm that can make all the throws" and possesses an "escapability we need,” Mumme said. There's a reason he was a four-star prospect and the No. 4 quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class ahead of Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins (already a first-round draft pick), Oregon's Justin Herbert (will be a first-round pick) and Florida's Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame's Ian Book (both starters for top-10 teams, among others.
Henry's path to his first FBS start hasn't been easy as Nevada is his seventh school in the last eight seasons, including four high schools, one junior college and now two FBS programs.
“With Malik, the hardest part is he’s gone through a lot," Mumme said. "He transferred high schools. He went from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast and then he went to Florida State, then he went to Independence. That’s a lot of people in his ears. There's a lot of people talking to him. That’s a lot of offenses he had to learn over a short amount of time. He's come a long ways in eight months and hopefully we’ll see how far and how well he’s gotten this offense down.
"It’s hard. You have to kind of relax with him a little bit and sit down and explain things instead of getting upset. When you look at Cris (Solano) or Carson (Strong) in a game, you can get on them a little bit for a mistake that they should know better when they make it. With Malik, we just have to be patient.”
Mumme admitted in fall camp the early-goings with Henry weren't easy, but Norvell said progress has been made off the field. Norvell has an extensive check list his quarterbacks must hit to get on the field, most of those being off-the-field responsibilities. One of the reasons Henry didn't get on the field earlier was because he was coming up short in those areas. With Nevada's offense failing to produce of late, Henry is being busted out of the "In Case of Emergency Break Glass" bin.
Mumme said Henry's effort level has increased since he was named the starter.
“He was excited," Mumme said. "To see that he was starting and then all of a sudden it was, ‘Hey, I’m going to start taking care of stuff off the field a little more, taking care of the academic side and come in more and meet with us.' I think that it’s there. It’s just making him hungry to do it. That’s the thing. The quarterback spot is hard. There’s only going to be one guy on the field at a time. Even if you’re second string or third string, you have to be hungry and understand what teams are trying to do to us.”
Mumme said Nevada's offense will be more simplistic for Henry's start against San Jose State, which has one of the Mountain West's poorer defenses. Part of that is because of Henry's knowledge of the offense. He's only been at Nevada for nine months. Part of that is because the Wolf Pack has failed to execute for much of the last month, so it is going back to basics.
As Henry walked off the practice field Tuesday, blowing past the Wolf Pack's media relations official and reporters, Strong, Solano and Hamish McClure – Nevada's No. 2, 3 and 4 quarterbacks this week – all stayed on the field for another 20-plus minutes, working on routes with the team's receivers, putting in extra work. If all goes according to Nevada's plan this week, Henry will play well and the backups won't see the field Saturday against San Jose State. The Wolf Pack has put the team in the hands of the high-risk, high-reward Henry.
“He has a great arm and he makes throws that make you sit back and say, ‘Wow! That’s pretty!" offensive lineman Nate Brown said.
Added cornerback Daniel Brown: "His arm is very special."
That's why he's starting against San Jose State. Nevada has pinned its hopes on Henry, a guy no other college wanted to take a chance on after his stint on Last Chance U. This feels like Henry's last chance to salvage his career. It's up to him to take advantage of it.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.