Redshirt freshman Carson Strong appears to be zeroing in on Nevada's starting quarterback job with the next big test coming Saturday during the Wolf Pack's first of two fall camp scrimmages.
Nevada will take the field at Mackay Stadium at 9 a.m. with the event being free and open to the public, and Strong, who has taken the lion's share of the first-team reps since Cristian Solano broke his throwing hand last week, is expected to be behind center with the first string. While the Vacaville, Calif., native has looked good in practice, the next step is doing the same in a game-like situation offered in a scrimmage.
“It’s big because that’s going to be a little more like a game," Nevada offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Mumme said. "I do like that Jay (Norvell) made the quarterbacks live in the spring. He put them in that fire, in that heat so we can kind of see the young guys compete and we could see what they’d do when they got hit and knocked down and if they’d stand back up and throw a strike. Now I just think it’s about timing things up, and the way it’s looking at this point we’re kind of going into it with Carson and he just needs to get over being young. We need him to age a little bit. And he’s doing it. There are a lot of things he does really well and there are some things we need to iron out.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strong completed 18-of-26 passes for 195 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in Nevada's Silver & Blue Scrimmage to cap spring camp. He is battling Malik Henry, who has been limited with a minor unknown injury, for the starting gig with Solano sidelined for at least the next couple of weeks after having surgery on his throwing hand.
“This is part of the process," Norvell said of the scrimmage's impact on evaluating who should start the Wolf Pack's season opener against Purdue. "Being able to handle the summer, being able to handle training camp and all of the responsibilities that a quarterback has. We really want a patient smart guy and a guy who’s going to run the offense, protect the football and show maturity. That’s what we’re challenging those guys to do every day.”
Mumme expressed confidence in Strong, who hasn't played a full game since 2016, his junior season of high school (he missed his senior season following knee surgery).
“The thing is he’s got great energy and he’s really smart," Mumme said of Strong. "He’s going to work hard and he’s always going to be in the office bugging me to go over film and go over plays. He knows it. He just has to execute it. With emotion, that’s one of those things where it can go either way. You show your emotion, your excitement for the game and being out there on the field and your teammates see it and feed off it. That’s the big bonus of it. The flipside is you don’t want to see the other side of it when something bad happens you don’t want to get down on yourself or have bad body language, which Coach Norvell talks about. I tell him, let’s stay in the peaks and not have too many valleys. If we could do that, that’d be really good.”
Henry joined the Wolf Pack as a walk-on last winter, although his talent level is far above your average walk-on. He is a former four-star recruit who began his college career at Florida State before two season of junior-college ball, which was chronicled on Netflix's Last Chance U. On the show, Henry clashed with coaches, but Mumme said the 6-2, 195-pounder has come a long way in his time with the Wolf Pack. Henry completed 16-of-28 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown with zero turnovers in Nevada's spring game.
“I’m really proud," Mumme said of Henry. "Malik came here in the spring and a lot of stuff between each other was a fight. And he just had to learn and overcome some of the things that had happened to him in the past. I feel like he’s starting to settle in and I’m starting to see a lot of positives out of him. He’s tending to a minor injury right now, so he hasn’t gotten a lot of reps. But when he does get out there, he does what we ask him to do. He’s executing stuff and he’s learning the offense. The biggest thing for us is just getting him full speed back on the field where he can get some reps. In the last 7 to 8 months, I’m excited to see where he’s trending to.”
In addition to the quarterback battle, Nevada has open starting positions at a number of spots, including offensive line, wide receiver, defensive end and at safety. Norvell said the scrimmage will give his players a chance to simulate what a real game will feel like.
“We practice every day, but we don’t have officials," Norvell said. "It’s a chance to get in Mackay and have our players used to playing in Mackay. We’ll do all sorts of situations. Short-yardage. Goal line. We’ll do a couple different two-minute drills so the quarterbacks have to handle the clock. And it will be timed by a real official. I do it in practice, but it’s better for the team to understand the mechanics of how the officials do it. And then just playing clean. Unusually your first scrimmage you have a lot of simple penalties like holding, uniform violations, not having the right pads in.”
The quarterbacks won't be live, meaning they won't be hit, during the scrimmage. Norvell said he's trying to manage the balance of being physical in scrimmages and keeping his team healthy, which it has largely done so far this fall outside of Solano's injury. Mumme said he's excited to see how his quarterbacks perform Saturday. In addition to Strong and Henry, the Wolf Pack has two more quarterbacks on the team in Austin Kirksey, a true freshman, and Hamish McClure, a sophomore transfer from Sac State who must sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
“I want to just see all of the quarterbacks go out and execute," Mumme said. "I told them, “Here we are in day seven, eight, and I just want to see consistency.’ We’ve kind of been sporadic. We’ve done a lot of good things and a lot of things that aren’t so good. We’re trying to fix those and trying to put things all together and move the ball with more consistency.”