Malik Henry had it all coming out of high school.
He had offers from blueblood programs like Texas, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn and Michigan State. When he committed to Florida State over those schools, he was the No. 1-ranked pro-style quarterback in his class and the No. 5-ranked player overall. And with the size, arm strength and mobility that college coaches drool over, Henry was being compared favorably to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
But less than a year later, it was all taken away. Before playing a single down for the Seminoles, Henry, who was suspended early in his Florida State career, left the team. A stint at Independence (Kan.) Community College, featured in Netflix’s Last Chance U, was meant to rehab his image, but it did the opposite.
He played not one but two seasons of junior-college ball and didn’t get as much as a single Division I scholarship offer before leaving the school. The 6-foot-3 golden-armed quarterback who once had it all now had nothing. Nothing but a walk-on spot at Nevada, a far cry from the college royalty he was being offered by when he came out of high school.
But Henry is fine with that. A Wolf Pack walk-on, he’s working his way back to those lofty heights. And after a standout spring camp at Nevada, Henry’s future looks bright again as he plays for a staff he trusts.
“A couple of coaches from Nevada reached out to me and with time we built a relationship, we built a rapport and our bond got stronger and stronger and I just feel comfortable with Nevada,” Henry said after the Wolf Pack's spring game Saturday. “These coaches are great. The first day they really welcomed me in here and treated me like family. A lot of other places can say they do that, but here I felt that.
“I’ve been at a lot of other places, but here at Nevada they really practice what they preach. I really appreciate all of the coaches for giving me a shot. I appreciate all of the coaches for not slighting me or looking at me differently because of my past and the show. I just really appreciate them and appreciate the team for accepting me and it’s been great so far. I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Henry was off limits to the media during Nevada’s five-week spring camp until after his spring game performance, which included him completing 16-of-28 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown with no turnovers. And even when Henry was made available to the press, the Wolf Pack put restrictions on the topics allowed to be asked, with only inquiries about his time at Nevada being allowed. That’s because of Henry’s rocky past, part of which was covered on television.
Nevada is Henry’s sixth school in the last six seasons, including stints at three high schools as well as three colleges, including his time on Last Chance U, where he was depicted as talented but moody and difficult to deal with, which likely led to his lack of offers after one junior-college seasons. But Nevada has offered him a fresh slate with what is likely his last chance in college. Henry’s initial impressions have been positive.
“I reached out to him as soon as he got here and we hung out a couple of times and he seems like a great kid,” senior receiver Kaleb Fossum said about halfway through spring camp. “I know people can be portrayed a certain way on TV and we don’t hold that against him here. We’re family here. I think he’s done a great job showing he’s just here to play football and he doesn’t let other stuff get to him. He told me when he first got here that he was just here to play football and wasn’t worried about anything else. He has a great attitude, he’s ready to learn, he’s competing and he’s doing everything right so far.”
Nevada’s quarterback battle appeared to be a two-player race between senior Cristian Solano and redshirt freshman Carson Strong entering spring camp, but Henry, who will be a junior next season, firmly put his name in the mix with his spring performance. Now a fan favorite to win the job, Henry arguably has the highest ceiling of the players vying to be Nevada’s starter. But after a long path back to an FBS team, Henry said his focus is smaller.
“I’m worried about these guys,” Henry said of his team. “These are my teammates right here and I’m doing everything I can to put them in the best position I can. We’re trying to get to the Mountain West championship and get to a bowl game. That’s what I’m trying to do. Anything I can do to help the team right now, that’s my role. I’m not really worried about the starting position. As long as our guys get healthy, get acclimated to the system and everything flows correctly I think we’ll be good for this year.”
Unlike the two other quarterbacks in the mix for the starting job, Henry is new to offensive coordinator Matt Mumme’s Air Raid scheme. Henry estimated he had an “85 percent” understanding of the offense, which makes his performance in the spring even more impressive given his unfamiliarity with the playbook.
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell didn’t name a starter after spring camp and likely won’t until deep into fall camp, if not the day of the season opener. But he, too, was impressed with Henry’s play.
“Malik Henry has so many tools,” Norvell said. “He has a very gifted arm. He’s very mobile in the pocket. He can hurt you in the run. And he’s a former baseball player, so he can throw from funny body positions and get his body in positions. So much of being able to throw on the run is getting your upper body in position to make offset throws. You’ve seen it from guys like (Patrick) Mahomes and Kyler Murray. Malik Henry is exciting.”
Norvell said the quarterback who “takes charge” in the offseason will be the player who earns the right to start for Nevada. Henry has largely taken a quiet approach to the beginning of his Nevada career, which is understandable given his backstory, but a more aggressive approach over the summer could be in store. While Nevada’s receivers have avoided showing favoritism to any quarterback in the competition, they have praised Henry both for his ability on the field and his leadership skills off it.
“He’s a really cool guy,” senior receiver Brendan O’Leary-Orange said. “I don’t really look into backstories and I try and stay off social media and off that TV show. It doesn’t really matter to me. It’s who you are as a person. Since he’s been here, all I know of Malik is he’s a good dude to hang out with, a hella positive individual, always uplifting. If you drop a ball, he’s not there to criticize you. He’s going to come right back to you. It’s real good to be around positively like that and a leader like that who will help you grow.”
The Wolf Pack has the makings off a strong offense in 2019. The team’s skill-position players at running back and wide receiver rank among the MW's best. The team must replace three starters on the offensive line, although that group's position coach, Angus McClure, believes his Union is stronger and more athletic than a year ago. The big question mark is at quarterback where Nevada must replace solid starter Ty Gangi, who is in rookie mini-camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Henry likes the offense’s potential.
“We’ve got a championship team,” Henry said. “We’ve got a great team. Our receivers are really strong, they’re all good, big bodies, fast, the guys on the inside can move. We’ve got some young guys who can go, who can really take the top off and they’re all play-makers. I can’t go wrong no matter who I give the ball to. I know they’ll going to do something with it, and I trust them. I know if I just do my job, they’ll do theirs. We all hold each other accountable and if we do that I guarantee you we’ll play good ball.”
Whether Henry ascends to the top line of Nevada’s depth chart will be determined over the next couple of months, but at least he’s got a shot at it again. After a long detour following his Florida State flameout, Henry is back on an FBS team and he’s turning heads yet again.
“You can see on the show that he made some great throws and here we’ve seen him make some throws that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Fossum said. “His arm is definitely a head-turner. It’s awesome for us. He’s giving guys chances to make plays.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.