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Nevada position review (QB): Carson Strong shows he's among nation's elite

Carson Strong
Carson Strong had one of the best seasons in Wolf Pack history. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)

The Nevada football season ended last month with a 38-27 win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 7-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play (third in the Mountain West). We will review how each position performed in 2020 and look at that group heading into 2021. Today’s position: Quarterback.

Top performers

* Carson Strong: 249-of-355 (70.1 percent), 2,858 yards, 8.1 yards per attempt, 27 TDs, four INTs, 160.6 QB rating

Highlight

There are a lot of games to choose from for this one, but we'll go with Nevada's bowl win over Tulane in which Strong completed 22-of-28 passes (78.6 percent) for 271 yards and five touchdowns, which tied a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl record. Nevada started that game by running the ball because of the stiff wind, which provided some great balance offensively. But Tulane was down its top three defensive linemen, each being good pass rushers, and had an iffy secondary to start with, so Strong had no issue carving up the Greenwave defense. The Wolf Pack opened with the game's first three touchdowns, all scoring passes from Strong, and he added two more in the fourth quarter. He connected with four different players on those touchdown passes. Strong also posted a career-best 218.8 quarterback rating in that win. It might not have been his most gaudy game statistically — Strong threw for 420 yards and four touchdowns versus Wyoming — but it was his best.

Lowlight

The great thing about Strong's season is there wasn't a lowlight. He only had one game with multiple turnovers, that being a 37-26 win over Fresno State in which Strong threw for 354 yards and five touchdowns against his two interceptions. His season low in passing yards came in a 24-21 loss to Hawaii, but the offense only had the ball for six possessions and Strong completed 80 percent of his throws for 168 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, so he was fine in that game. The low point was the loss to San Jose State, although Strong still played well against the Spartans, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 260 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers. Strong was unable to stretch the field in that game (his 5.4 yards per pass attempt was a season low) and his quarterback rating of 121.1 was his worst in 2020. But that game was lost on the two lost fumbles by Toa Taua, in addition to some special teams and defensive miscues, rather than anything done at the quarterback position.

Grade

A – I rarely give out "A"s, but in this case it's deserved. I recently ranked the 19 best quarterback seasons in Wolf Pack history, and Strong's 2020 campaign finished third behind Colin Kaepernick's 2010 and Stan Heath's 1948, and both of those guys finished in the top eight in the Heisman Trophy voting. Strong didn't get any Heisman votes this year, but his numbers were in the same class as the players who did earn some votes. Strong proved he was among the nation's elite quarterbacks. He completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 2,858 yards, 27 touchdowns, four interceptions and a school-record 160.6 quarterback rating. Strong became the first underclassmen to win Mountain West offensive player of the year, and that was a runaway race. Strong was certainly aided by playing with two dynamic pass-catchers in Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner (the three are roommates), but it was Strong driving the train as the Wolf Pack offense took a huge step forward.

2021 vision

Strong has already said he's bypassing the 2021 NFL draft and will return for his junior season, a smart decision given how loaded the quarterback class is next season (there could be five quarterbacks selected in the first round). Strong still has three seasons of eligibility left thanks to 2020 basically not counting as a year of eligibility, but the odds are he's off to the NFL draft well before then. At 6-foot-4 with a bazooka arm, Strong has the necessary skills that will translate to the next level, but his focus in the short term is winning Nevada a championship, something the program hasn't done since 2010. In fact, Nevada is one of only four MW schools to not reach the championship game since it was created in 2013, the others being UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State. The Wolf Pack has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and a nice complement of offensive skill-position players, so now is the time to strike and have a special season. There's not much in terms of depth behind Strong with junior-college transfers Nate Cox and Jake Barlage being his backups, so Strong staying healthy in 2021 is huge, which is something he was able to do this season.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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