During the majority of Malik Henry's career, one thing that has lacked is stability.
The talented quarterback has been a part of seven programs in the last eight seasons, including four high schools, one junior college and two FBS programs. The path eventually led him to Nevada, where the 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior will get his first FBS start Saturday against San Jose State. One of his favorite things about being a member of the Wolf Pack is the feeling of stability and support the school has offered.
“It’s probably been the best thing a quarterback or anybody coming into a new situation can have, guys behind him, guys who believe in him and just want to see him do great," Henry said. "I think it’s a great situation for me to walk into and I trust everybody on my team, I trust everybody on offense and I believe we’re going to get the job done.”
Henry is being tasked with helping turn around a stagnant offense that ranks 115th out of 130 FBS teams in passing efficiency and points per game. Coach Jay Norvell has made it clear a quarterback change won't fix everything that ails the offense, but he wants to see how the team will react to starting Henry, whose only playing time this season came at UTEP, where he completed all three of his pass attempts for 28 yards during his two series. One of those ended with a touchdown and the other ended inside the red zone when Kaleb Fossum fumbled after a reception.
“I’m just excited to do whatever the team needs me to do," Henry said. "This is going to be my first start, but I’m not nervous. It’s just another game for me. This team needs a win, and this week they decided to have me go do it. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team win and put us in the best situation.”
Henry will be the third quarterback to start a game for Nevada this season following Carson Strong, who is 2-2, and Cristian Solano, who won his lone start at UTEP. But the Wolf Pack struggled in its last outing, a 54-3 loss to Hawaii in which the quarterbacks combined to go 18-of-31 for 105 yards and three turnovers. Henry didn't appear in that game, but will get the opportunity to win the job long term against a much improved San Jose State team, which has defensive vulnerabilities but also has recorded 11 interceptions, the second most in the nation.
“I just want to go out there and execute," Henry said. "It’s all about my guys, it’s all about the team, it’s all about my receivers and if we all just become one and all come together as a unit, that’s all it comes down to.”
Henry is the most heralded of the Wolf Pack's quarterbacks, in part because he was a four-star recruit and the No. 4-ranked prep quarterback in the 2016 class who began his career at Florida State. But he gained more fame by staring in Netflix's Last Chance U while playing at Independence (Kan.) Community College. News of him starting against San Jose State made national headlines, so fans across the country who became familiar with Henry in the show will tune in to see how he performs.
“I’m just hoping to show you guys what we do out here in practice every day, which is execute and work hard and just go through our plays and hopefully we just come out with a win,” Henry said.
Henry's diverse skill set was one of the reasons he will start against San Jose State. Nevada's offensive line has had difficulty protecting its quarterback this season and Henry has excellent athleticism despite a right hamstring injury he has fought since fall camp. Henry also has special arm talent, per offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, although his junior-college numbers weren't great.
In two years at Independence, Henry completed 151-of-288 passes (52.4 percent) for 1,857 yards, 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In Nevada's spring game, Henry completed 16-of-28 passes for a game-high 211 yards and a touchdown. Henry's ceiling is high and he said he's feeling comfortable in Nevada's Air Raid offense, which will be simplified against San Jose State, according to Mumme.
“Coach Mumme has done a great job of teaching me the offense and trying to explain to me how the spread and the Air Raid works," Henry said. "I think he’s done a great job of that. I have a great staff and great teammates behind me and I feel comfortable going into it because I have a great team behind me. They’ve never let me dip my head or feel down about myself, and so I feel I’m comfortable and feeling pretty good.”
Mumme said Henry is a blend of Strong and Solano because he has an NFL-caliber arm like Strong and the ability to improvise with his legs like Solano. Since Henry has been with the team only since January, his grasp of the offense isn't quite as strong, so the Wolf Pack has made adjustments in preparation for San Jose State.
“We’re going to keep it simple," Mumme said. "We’re going to just try and execute base plays. That’s the same thing for our whole entire offense. In the Hawaii game, that was the one thing I wanted to see in the end was just, ‘Don’t quit and execute base plays.’ In a lot of areas, we didn’t do that. That’s on me and I have to be better as an offensive coordinator, so if we can keep the game simple for Malik and the game slows down for us, he’ll be able to execute some stuff and throw the ball down the field.”
The Wolf Pack had a bye last week, which gave Henry two weeks to prepare for this start. Avoiding big mistakes, something Nevada has struggled with at quarterback, will be a big emphasis for Henry. The Wolf Pack's offense also has lacked explosive plays for much of the season. Henry said he feels like the offense is a good fit for his strengths.
“I just think my decision-making plays a big part of it, and also the guys they have around me," Henry said. "They have great receivers who can run, catch and do what they need to get open, so that helps me out a lot.”
While Nevada had good offensive outings against Purdue (34 points) and UTEP (37), the Wolf Pack has struggled in its three other contests, scoring six points at Oregon, 19 against Weber State (an FCS team) and three against Hawaii. That last game prompted the change to Henry.
“I wouldn’t say we’re struggling," Henry said. "I would just say our offense is trying to find some missing pieces. We’re starting to implement those and put those in and figure things out and we’re going to get rolling.”
After his two-year junior-college stint, Henry didn't receive any FBS offers and walked on at Nevada last winter. Nine months later, he'll get the chance to prove himself at college football's top level.
“I don’t think it was a risk," Henry said of walking on with the Wolf Pack. "I think Nevada is a great school. I like coach Jay Norvell. I like what he’s doing around here. Coach Mumme runs a great system, and it wasn’t a risk at all. It wasn’t a hard choice at all. I got here and the guys are from L.A. I’m comfortable around them. They’re great guys. They welcomed me in, and it’s been great so far.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.