Malik Henry will finally get a chance to lead an FBS program.
The talented quarterback, who has bounced around seven high schools and colleges in his career, was named Monday the starting quarterback for Nevada as it prepares to play San Jose State on Saturday. Henry will be the third Wolf Pack quarterback to start this season, following Carson Strong and Cristian Solano, who both struggled in a 54-3 loss to Hawaii in Nevada's last game.
“We are going to start Malik Henry at quarterback this week," Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said during his weekly press conference. "I said it at the beginning of the year, I felt all of our quarterbacks were going to play and had to win for us. And I guess we’re there. Carson won a couple big games for us. Cristian won a game for us. I just feel like at this point in the season with where we are as a team that Malik deserves his opportunity. It ain’t musical chairs. Malik is going to play. His opportunity to play is this week. We’ll do what we feel like we have to do as a team to win.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior was a four-star recruit out of high school who began his college career at Florida State. He transferred after one season, landing at Independence Community College in Kansas where he was featured on Netflix's Last Chance U. After no FBS offers materialized following two junior-college seasons, in part because of his sour demeanor displayed on the show, Henry walked on at Nevada in January and has largely been the third-string option for the Wolf Pack.
Henry played in two series in a win over UTEP last month, completing all three of his pass attempts for 28 yards, but he did not appear in Nevada's lopsided loss to Hawaii. Norvell said last week Henry was working on winning the trust of his coaches and teammates, and that was a necessary step before earning the role of starting quarterback.
“I think it’s been a work in progress," Norvell said. "Malik is a very talented young man. He’s a very interesting person once you get to know him. Any kind of a working relationship, you just don’t get to know somebody in a month or two months. You have to go through different situations with them. I’ve said before that playing quarterback is more than just going out on the field and throwing the ball around. You have to prepare. You have to go to class. You have to take care of business off the field with your teammates. He just had to earn the trust and respect of everybody involved with him, the coaching staff.
"Quarterback is unlike any other position. You have to come in and study and spend time asking questions, understanding the packages and he’s made tremendous progress with that. Since he’s been here, everybody who sees him practice appreciates his talent and he just had to make the transition here. It’s not easy to transfer. Everybody thinks the grass is always greener and you sprinkle some ninja dust on you and just transfer. You have to get used to being around other people, new strength coaches, new position coaches, new head coach and you have to learn what they want from you. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with Malik. 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, who was not available to the media Monday, has wowed teammates with some of the throws he's made in practice. Henry took the majority of the first-team reps in practice during Nevada's bye week and will take the lion's share of them again this week as Nevada preps to play an improved San Jose State squad.
“Malik’s a really talented guy," Nevada defensive back Daniel Brown said. "His arm is very special. I think he gives us a great opportunity to spread the ball around. I’m confident in all of our quarterbacks, but Malik is getting the nod this week, so we’re supporting him.”
With Nevada ranking 115th out of 130 FBS teams in team passing efficiency, Norvell said the decision to start Henry this week was an easy one.
“Not difficult at all," Norvell said. "We’ve been wanting to play him since he got here. We just wanted to see him do the things that we were asking him to do, so he’s getting his opportunity. When Carson started, he earned that right. Carson was beat up a little bit the first couple of games and Cristian came in and did a great job. He’s been getting reps here for three years, got his opportunity to play and played very well. Last week, we didn’t have anybody play good from every special teams position to defense to offense.
"We just felt like with Malik’s skills – they’re all very different – that he gave us the best chance. 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.”
Strong will back up Henry against San Jose State with Solano the third-string quarterback. Norvell expressed confidence in Strong, the redshirt freshman who was banged up in Nevada's first three games and missed the UTEP game with various injuries. Norvell said he was not concerned starting Henry would stunt Strong's growth and development.
“I don’t worry about anything," Norvell said. "I really don’t. I read my Bible, and my Bible says for me not to worry. I love Carson. Carson’s fine. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s the future of our program. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried.”
Norvell said simply switching the team's starting quarterback will not fix all that ails Nevada's offense, which has been held without a touchdown in two of its last four games. He said improvement is necessary across the roster.
“It’s just not the quarterback," Norvell said. "This is not going to be the magic decision that makes us a special football team. It’s about everybody doing their job, everybody competing and making plays and the quarterback is no different than any other position. We’ve got to play better, and we feel like Malik gives us a real chance. He’s got really good athletic ability, he has a really accurate arm and he’s got a good football mind.”
Norvell said it was important to "settle down" the quarterback position, which has seen four players take in-game reps with Hamish McClure playing at Oregon. Henry, the most well-known of Nevada's quarterback options, will get the next chance to win the starting position for the long term.
“I’ve said before that I have confidence all three of our quarterbacks can win us games," Norvell said. "It’s Malik’s opportunity to do that now."
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.