Cristian Solano has been waiting for the chance to be a college starting quarterback for a long time.
“Since I could walk honestly,” Solano said.
It seemed like an unlikely reality. For starters, his high school, San Fernando High, hasn’t produced a college starting quarterback in decades. On top of that, Solano’s heritage made it an even longer shot.
“It is hard being a Hispanic,” Solano admitted. “You really don’t see it. I had a lot of people tell me I was too small, too skinny and to get an opportunity to compete at this level is the best feeling in the world.”
When he was young, Solano told his mom he wanted to be a college football player and his parents have backed him ever since. As a senior at Nevada this season, Solano has one final crack to win the starting quarterback job. And he started spring camp as the man to beat after backing up Ty Gangi for the last 2 1/2 seasons. But Solano knows it won’t be easy to fend off youngsters Carson Strong and Malik Henry, among others.
“Having competition has brought out the best in me,” Solano said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I love the competition. I love it. If you don’t have competition, you kind of get comfortable and at this level you can’t. You have to be ready to compete every day and that’s one thing I bring out to every practice.”
It’s been a long time since Solano was his team’s starter. You have to go back to 2013 when he was a high school senior. That season, Solano led San Fernando to a 15-0 record, passing for 4,162 yards and 43 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He also rushed for 1,427 yards and 23 more scores, putting up video-game names at the Division II level, where Solano led his team to back-to-back city titles.
The two-star recruit then grayshirted a season, redshirted a season and has been a backup the last three years. Solano does have one college start under his belt – the only member of Nevada’s six-player quarterback group who can say that – after subbing in for an injured Gangi against Fresno State last season.
That start didn’t exactly as planned. Solano completed 22-of-43 passes for 195 yards with three interceptions while being sacked four times. He did rush for 71 yards on 23 carries, but Nevada was held without a touchdown in a home game for the first time since 1983. Playing Fresno State, which ranked third in the nation in scoring defense, wasn’t an easy task, but Solano said the experience was invaluable.
“I learned a lot from that game,” Solano said. “I wouldn’t have taken any other game even though it kills me every day and I can’t wait to play them again, but I learned a lot from that game and it bettered me as a player. I got to see who was the Mountain West champion and what it takes to get there.”
Solano said he felt like his teammates and coaches were behind him “110 percent” for that game, which gave him confidence they believed in him. When asked why he thinks he is the right quarterback to start for Nevada, Solano sounded a similar tune, saying the bond he has with the offense is a big plus.
“I feel like I have the team’s back and they have my back,” said Solano, a high-energy guy who has drawn praise from teammates. “Whoever the guy is, we’re going to back him 110. The biggest thing is the team having my back and me having their backs. I want them to know whatever it is they can rely on me.”
One area where Solano has a leg up on the competition is his legs. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is the most mobile and athletic of the six quarterbacks on the roster, which would enable him to run some of the Pistol plays that were incorporated into Nevada’s offense last season. Solano also has a solid arm, so his dual-threat abilities are one thing that could keep him atop the depth chart.
“He’s really quick,” Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said. “He has an ability to run. I think we’re going to be more athletic in and out of the pocket with the quarterbacks we have. Cristian really brings that to the table. He’s quick with the football. He can throw the ball short or deep, so he brings a variety of skills to the table. I think his experiences shows and he really has an understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
Norvell said whichever quarterback avoids mistakes will ultimately be the one who keeps the starting job. The Wolf Pack coach has noticed his quarterbacks are all pushing things a little too much, perhaps in an attempt to make a positive impression.
“The biggest thing with Solano, and a lot of our young quarterbacks, is they just need to dial it back a notch,” Norvell said. “He’s so excited, he wants to do everything perfect and he wants to make a big play every snap. It just doesn’t happen. The greatest example is the play that we won the (Arizona Bowl) game on. It’s just a simple drop down to the fullback in the flat. That’s a play that we put in the first day of practice. If you can do the most basic things really well fundamentally you’re really going to have a great advantage as a quarterback. The biggest thing that he needs to do is be able to function the offense without making mistakes. When he does that, people will have a lot of trust in him.”
Said Solano: “I just want to make smart decisions. Smart decisions and pretty much taking what they give me. That’s my big thing. Sometimes I get a little greedy, but they want me to take what they give me.”
Solano said the biggest thing he learned from Gangi was how to be calm and even-keeled. It’s been a tough balance for Solano, who is naturally effervescent, but he hopes to incorporate Gangi's poise into his game.
“He was relaxed and smooth with everything," Solano said, "and everything came out naturally for him. That’s one thing I want to keep. Having that high energy but being calm and smooth out there.”
With Strong and Henry, who both have rocket arms, chasing Solano, the lone senior in Nevada’s quarterback group will be pushed throughout the spring and summer and into the season opener. Solano is fine with that. He has a legitimate chance to win a college starting quarterback job, a lifetime goal he’s been chasing for several years.
“The guys who left us last year left us a little platform to step up onto," Solano said. "We’re just bringing that energy every day. I love coming out to practice. The coaches are behind us bringing that energy, and it’s fun coming out here every day.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.