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How big of an issue is Nevada football's lack of depth at quarterback?

Carson Strong
Carson Strong fires a pass during Nevada's bowl game last season. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

I'm higher on Carson Strong than most.

When he was healthy last season, a sample size of seven games, Strong put up the following numbers: 187-of-291 passing (64.3 percent) for 1,901 yards (271.6 per game) with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. He did that as a freshman behind one of the nation's worst offensive lines and a non-existent run game, although he had a relatively strong group of receivers to throw to.

During his sophomore season, Strong could break Nevada's streak of seven straight years without having an all-conference quarterback. I wouldn't rule out at shot in the pros down the road, too. With that said, the Wolf Pack could have a quarterback problem in 2020, although it has nothing to do with Strong. It has to do with the team's depth.

When Kaiden Bennett put his name in the transfer portal Monday, it left the Wolf Pack with just four quarterbacks on its roster, including only two on scholarship. This, of course, assumes Bennett will transfer, which is not a 100 percent guarantee until it actually happens. It was no cinch Bennett was going to win the backup job, but he was the odds-on favorite and at least added some talented depth behind Strong considering he compiled 8,912 yards and 121 touchdowns during two seasons as a starting high school quarterback.

Without Bennett? That depth is thinned because his departure follows the losses of Kaymen Cureton (transferred to Eastern Kentucky in May), Malik Henry (didn't enroll in classes in January), Austin Kirksey (transferred to Georgia in January) and Griffin Dahn (transferred to Albany in April 2019). Those departures have put a significant dent on the quarterback depth chart.

If Strong stays healthy all season, it's no big deal. The Wolf Pack will have a top-half quarterback in the MW, perhaps a top two or three gunslinger in the conference. But he went through a couple of injuries last season, he's still playing behind what is expected to be an iffy offensive line and history shows us Nevada's backup has usually been pressed into action.

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The Wolf Pack has started its backup quarterback in at least one game in each of the last four seasons and seven of the last nine years, marking the post-Colin Kaepernick era. Since 2012, Nevada is 6-7 when using its backup quarterback, including a 2-4 mark under current coach Jay Norvell. That 6-7 record, which includes two games against Top 25 teams (both losses), isn't bad considering the Wolf Pack is 42-46 using its starting quarterback since 2012, which is actually a worse winning percentage than when the backup starts.

The bottom line is Nevada has had to use its backup quarterback more often than it'd like over the last several seasons, but it's been able to stay afloat when doing so. I'm not sure if that would be the case this season, and depth will be even more important in 2020 given COVID-19 will loom over everything going on in the program. Not only will Nevada's starters have to avoid major injuries. They'll have to avoid a highly contagious disease, which will assuredly push more backups onto the field if there is a 2020 season (still a big "if").

Here are the names behind Strong on the depth chart.

* Hamish McClure: A 5-foot-11 sophomore, McClure began his career as a scholarship player at FCS school Sac State before transferring to Nevada last season (his dad, Angus, was the team's assistant head coach and offensive line coach before leaving for Cal). McClure played in one game last season, the rout at Oregon, and is coming back from major surgery. He's my odds-on favorite to win the backup job (and not just because I live a couple streets down from his parents). I actually think McClure would have won the backup job over Bennett (he ran the Wolf Pack scout team last year while Bennett largely worked at receiver, which may have helped his decision to transfer). McClure is a good athlete with a strong arm despite the size. I would not be surprised if he held his own on the field in a Devin Combs type of way, although it's not the ideal backup situation heading into a season.

* Nate Cox: A JC transfer who joined Nevada in January, Cox is huge. He's 6-9 and 240 pounds, so nearly a foot talker than McClure. Cox was a late addition to Nevada's 2020 recruiting class as the Pack offered him a scholarship, his lone FBS offer, during their first conversation after some review of his film. Cox began his college career as a walk-on at Louisiana Tech for two seasons before transferring to Garden City (Kan.) Community College. In his one JuCo season, Cox completed 131-of-253 passes (51.8 percent) for 1,891 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, so the numbers aren't great, but the Wolf Pack needed some depth when it signed Cox in February and needs it even more with two more quarterbacks leaving the team since then. Cox had a strong senior season in high school, completing 202-of-323 passes (62.5 percent) for 3,405 yards, 48 touchdowns and five interceptions, his only season as a varsity starter.

* Jonah Chong: A true freshman walk-on from Honolulu, the 6-foot, 175-pound Chong had a better junior season than senior season at Iolani School. In his two-year prep career, Chong threw for 4,156 yards, 45 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, leading his team to the state title game as a senior. Chong is your prototypical practice arm, which Nevada will need if there is a 2020 season, who could potentially grow into a player on the depth chart. I wouldn't be surprised if Nevada added another walk-on to get another arm to throw to the receivers.

Would the Wolf Pack staff feel comfortable putting any of those backups on the field this season? It's a question the Nevada coaches would prefer not to answer. The Wolf Pack will be fine at quarterback if Strong can stay healthy. But the team's margin for error on offense has shrunk with the recent defections at quarterback, making Strong an even more important key to the 2020 season.

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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