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For star QB Carson Strong and the Nevada offense, 2021 season is all business

Carson Strong
Carson Strong, shown celebrating the Wolf Pack's win over UNLV last season, is one of the nation's top quarterbacks. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

One of Matt Mumme’s favorite vacation spots is Mexico Beach, a speck of a city on Florida’s panhandle. Mumme and his wife, Fayedra, took a trip there this summer and boated out to a deserted island.

“There were shells everywhere and there was a whole sand dollar,” the Wolf Pack offensive coordinator said. “Finding a whole sand dollar is almost impossible. I looked at my wife and told her, ‘That’s our offense. That’s how special all of these guys are together.’”

The 46-year-old Mumme said he’s never coached a group like this before, and it all starts with the Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback, Carson Strong, the target of more preseason NFL draft hype than any Nevada football player before. A strong-armed 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, Strong is the Mountain West’s most lethal weapon. In 2020, he became the first underclassmen to win the conference’s offensive player of the year award. And while he’s surrounded by NFL talent, there’s no question who leads the group.

“Carson is the one who makes those guys go,” former Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, a College Football Hall of Famer, said. “I think the world of Carson Strong. He's come so far. He has tremendous poise. He's got a great arm. There's no question he is an NFL quarterback. There's no question about it because of the strength of his arm.”

But with the NFL still at least a few months away, Strong must deal with a new challenge: expectations.

An underrated high school recruit, Strong had just one scholarship offer out of Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., a town known more for its outdoor mall (Nut Tree Plaza) than its ability to produce NFL talent. He redshirted as a true freshman at Nevada and struggled in the middle of his first year as a starter in 2019, throwing five interceptions against zero touchdowns in a three-game stretch while playing with a small collarbone fracture. Even after an excellent close to his redshirt freshman year, nobody saw last season coming.

But after completing 70.1 percent of his passes for 2,858 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions – numbers that rivaled No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence (69.2 percent, 3,153 yards, 24 TDs, five INTs) – Strong has boosted his draft stock, and with that comes rising expectations, those he’s willing to accept.

Strong has brushed off mock draft projections that rate him as high as the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, noting quarterback projections are an inexact science and a quarterback nobody is talking about today will go in the top 10 in the draft, citing BYU’s Zach Wilson last year. If the pressure of living up to being a high draft pick has impacted Strong, he hasn’t shown it leading up to Saturday’s season opener at Cal, a defense that will test Nevada's potent offense.

Strong knows what is required to become a highly drafted quarterback, so he hasn't chased big-money name, image and likeness deals to pad his bank account. For Strong, this season is all about the business of winning.

"Winning is the only thing that matters," Strong said. "Me and my dad talk about it. My coaches and everybody. At the end of the day, you have to go out there and win. That’s the only thing I’m worried about. I just want to go out there and win a championship for Nevada and play in a New Year’s Six bowl. I’m proud to be a Nevada alum here soon, and I just want to represent the school well and just go out there and play in a bowl game, win the conference. That’s all we want to do.”

Strong’s teammates have noticed a change in their leader over the years. His work ethic – which include stories of Strong throwing to practice dummies during frigid cold winter nights in his true freshman season – remains the same. The strong arm is there, too. But the way Strong carries himself is different. An emotional person by nature, Strong has become more even-keeled, which will be key given the hype surrounding him.

“He was really whiny his first two years,” offensive tackle Aaron Frost said with a laugh, adding he loves Strong. “As he started to come down to the facility a little more, talking to Coach (Jay) Norvell, getting used to the system, he understood, ‘OK, this is how football is supposed to be played,' and he’s, really, really exploded since then.”

Roommates with wide receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner – they’ve been dubbed The Three Amigos – Strong’s unending love of football has driven the rest of his teammates to levels they never imagined they could reach. Doubs and Turner have become NFL prospects, too, after daily side sessions away from the coaches perfecting their routes and timing. That chemistry stood out to Mountain West coaches last year.

“I think Carson Strong is the best quarterback in our league," New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales, a defensive mastermind, said last season. "He’s talented, he can spin it, he’s thrown a couple of touchdowns with the ball in the air for 65 yards. Their timing is better than anybody else in our league. They’re really precise with their routes.”

And that is a result of the number of reps Strong mandates from him wide receivers.

“I love my boy Carson,” said wide receiver Elijah Cooks, another NFL prospect. “It’s so fun playing with him because he loves the game. We all love the game, but Carson shows a different love to the game. I love being out there with him. He hypes us up every time we do something. He’s just fun to be around.”

While Strong’s 2020 season was one for the record books, his passer rating of 160.6 being the best in school history, the junior says there is room to improve. He wants to be the first FBS quarterback to complete 80 percent of his passes in a season. He should make a run at Nevada’s single-season touchdown passes mark (34).

“I expect him to be better than he was a year ago and be more patient and utilize all his weapons appropriately,” Norvell said. “He’s a much smarter player. He’s more experienced. He has more game snaps, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve been so excited about. We have a lot of guys with a lot of game snaps.”

Norvell, who coached in the NFL from 1998-03, said the reason Nevada unearthed Strong when no other FBS schools offered him a scholarship was because of the Wolf Pack's quarterback formula.

"I've been coaching college football for a long time; I was in the NFL for six years,” Norvell said. “I don't think many people know what they're looking for in a quarterback, and we've always been very specific. There are three things we look for: We look for intelligence, we look for accuracy and we look for passion. Those three things, and Carson has all three. He's a Vacaville kid. He wasn't highly recruited. And those things he does very, very well. He's a very intelligent kid. He can handle volumes of information that we give him. He reads the defense. He has the ability to change plays and audible, and he runs the whole offense. The other thing is he's got an incredible accurate arm for deep balls and he has a tremendous passion to play. And that passion shows up in his preparation watching film.”

Mumme, who backed up Tim Couch, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft, while at Kentucky, said Strong is a better draft prospect than Couch, citing Strong’s football knowledge. While he's bullish on Strong’s future, Mumme has tried to sharpen his pupil’s focus to the short term to avoid him being overwhelmed.

“I used a Kentucky Derby deal," Mumme said. “I told Carson, ‘Do you watch the thoroughbreds run in racing?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that.’ I told him, ‘Sometimes jockeys and owners will put blinders on a horse so they just see the track in front of them and stay in tune with the track in front of them.’ That’s kind of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to take all of the outside stuff Carson is getting and kind of push it away and try and stay focused on really him getting better and getting his knee right.”

Strong missed his senior season of high school after knee surgery and had two more surgeries on that knee this offseason, the second causing him to miss several practices early in fall camp. He’s practiced the last two weeks and will be fine against Cal, but it’s worth monitoring, both for this season and for his pre-NFL medical checkups. But rarely does a talent like Strong come through a Group of 5 school. Nevada has only had three quarterbacks start an NFL game, including just one – Colin Kaepernick – since 1950.

“To have a quarterback being touted like Carson is, that’s special,” said Mumme, the son of Hal Mumme, the architect of the Air Raid system Strong has thrived in. “My dad has been coaching for over 45 years and he had one guy go, and that’s Tim Couch. The odds just aren’t that great that you’re going to have them. And to have three great receivers like we have here, it’s a special run at Nevada.”

Despite having all that talent, Nevada wasn't among the national leaders in scoring offense last season. The Wolf Pack’s 30.8 points per game in 2020, while a major improvement from the year before, ranked just 46th in the nation. Everybody associated with the Wolf Pack wants more this season.

“Offensively, I feel like we should go crazy,” said running back Devonte Lee, part of a potent one-two rushing attack alongside Toa Taua. “I feel like if we don't score 50 points a game, something’s wrong.”

Frost set the standard even higher: “I remember in high school I scored 99. I want to beat that. I want 100. Put triple-digits on the scoreboard. I want to put people out in the first half and let people know they can’t hang with us.”

The Wolf Pack players boast that confidence because of the talent they possess and the quarterback who will lead them. Anything short of a Mountain West championship would be a disappointment. Anything shy of offensive dominance won’t be accepted.

“I really think we can score every single time we touch the ball,” Strong said. “I truly believe that.”

With almost all of Nevada’s offensive play-makers being seniors, Strong one of the lone exceptions, Mumme knows this is the year to strike. The Wolf Pack might never be able to put this collection of offensive talent together again. It’s a special group, special like that perfect sand dollar Mumme found off the shores of Mexico Beach. And when you have something that special, you don’t want to waste it.

“I still have that sand dollar,” Mumme said with a smile. “It’s on my desk at home.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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