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Murray's Mailbag: How worried should Nevada fans be about Carson Strong's knee?

Carson Strong
Carson Strong is one of the keys to Nevada's season but has been battling a knee injury early this fall camp. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Smoke, smoke,

Go away;

Come again,

Another day;

Wolf Pack football,

Wants to play;

But can't suit up,

If you stay.

*******

I figured we'd start off with a nursery rhyme since this wildfire smoke won't disperse. We have some smoke talk, but we'll start this week's Monday Mailbag with the knee of Nevada star quarterback Carson Strong. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

(Also, Nevada announced after I wrote this Mailbag and the rhyme above that it was relocating to Stanford for fall camp due to poor air quality.)

As background for those not completely up to speed, Carson Strong missed his senior season of high school in 2017 after knee surgery when an MRI revealed an osteochondritis dissecans lesion and resulted in eight biodegradable nails being inserted to mend a crack in his lateral femoral condyle bone. In January, Strong had surgery on the same knee to clean up cartilage after he felt some uneasiness in the knee during his breakout 2020 season. Prior to the start of fall camp this month, Strong has an arthroscopy to clear out scar tissue in the knee. Strong was a full participant in Nevada's first fall camp practice Aug. 6, although his knee was bleeding heavily after the session. Strong has since had to have the knee drained a couple of times and has been limited to watching practice from a golf cart in recent sessions.

Given the ongoing issue, we asked coach Jay Norvell about Strong's knee after practice last Wednesday, although the messaging was mixed. Coach Norvell opened by saying, "His knee is fine. He had a surgery and structurally it's all fine." Later on, he said, "He's not quite healthy, and when he is, we'll put him out here. ... We have a long season. Even this first game is not the only important game we'll play. The most important thing is we get him back for the bulk of the season." Obviously, there's a big difference between "his knee is fine" and we want Strong back for "the bulk of the season." I don't think Coach Norvell is trying to play games or anything. It's just a day-to-day thing. It's far from ideal. You want your starter being fully healthy and taking a lot of snaps in fall camp. That was the expectation this summer when Nevada said Strong would be 100 percent by June. We're in mid-August and he's not 100 percent.

Will he play in game one? My guess is, "Yes," although that not being a "100 percent yes" answer is concerning given Strong's importance to the Wolf Pack offense. Nevada has a lot of great play-makers on offense with Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner, Elijah Cooks and Toa Taua. But the guy who makes the group go and the offense potentially special is Strong, a NFL-level quarterback who could blossom into a first-round draft pick with a second straight strong season. With Strong, Nevada's ceiling goes from potential Mountain West champ and Top 25 team to a squad fighting for a bowl berth. You don't want to rush Strong out there for the season opener if he's not fully comfortable, especially given how competitive he is (he doesn't know how to give less than 100 percent, even in practice and even if that's best for his long-term situation).

I've seen some fans throw out the notion Strong is not practicing right now to give reps to his backups. That's not the case. His backups got all of the snaps during spring camp. This is not some ploy to get Nate Cox, Clay Millen, Drew Scolari and Jake Barlage more snaps. Nevada wants to get Strong reps, especially after he wasn't allowed to practice in full in spring camp. Yes, Strong is entering his third year as a starter, but he's also only started 19 games, so the more practice time he gets, the better. This is not a "rest Carson Strong so the backups get some reps situation." He simply is not healthy enough to practice. If Nevada's season opener was last Saturday, he wouldn't have played. He has three weeks to get to a point where he's healthy enough to play. Again, I expect him to suit up against the Bears, but this combined with Nevada's ragged practice schedule as a result of wildfire smoke (detailed here), doesn't bode well for a sharp season-opening performance.

If there is a silver lining, it's been the play of Millen, the true freshman and four-star quarterback recruit who signed to play for Nevada after verbally committed to Arizona. Millen, whose father Hugh played in the NFL for nearly a decade, is the real deal. If Strong weren't able to play at Cal, Nate Cox would almost certainly start (and he's looked solid in camp). But Millen has split the reps with Cox and can really spin it. He has good arm strength and his decision-making and control of the offense has been impressive for a teenager. A lot of times, a true freshman will struggle to complete 10-yard passes in his first fall camp. Millen is getting the ball down the field with ease, and while there have been mistakes and interceptions sprinkled in, he's asserted himself as the heir apparent to Strong if Strong enters the NFL draft after this season.

Overall, I'd put the level of concern on Strong's knee at a 5 (with 10 being most concerned), so it's not something to ignore. But if he's practicing by next Monday, that gives him two weeks to prepare for Cal, which should be enough to get up to speed given his experience in the Wolf Pack offense. It's just not the full fall camp you'd like to have, especially after missing spring camp, to work out all the kinks and feel like you're 100 percent ready going into a huge season opener against a Pac-12 foe.

Cal is planning on full capacity at Memorial Stadium, which holds 63,000 fans. The Bears averaged 42,433 fans per home game in 2019 (obviously there were no fans last season). If the Nevada-Cal game hits 45,000 fans, I'd guess 85 percent are Bears supporters (that'd still give Nevada about 6,800 fans in attendance). At this stage, I haven't been informed of any busses going from Reno to Berkeley. I'll post a story if I hear of any. It's just tough given the current COVID conditions. We shouldn't be sharing busses with strangers right now.

A lot depends on how much practice Nevada can get in with this poor air quality and how healthy Carson Strong is, and we don't have firm answers on either of those questions. But Nevada has the better roster. I'm really intrigued by how Cal's defense attacks Nevada. Bears head coach Justin Wilcox is a great defensive mind, and Cal has former Nevada associate head coach Angus McClure on staff, so there's some #InsideInfo on what the Wolf Pack likes to do offensively. Cal is a 3.5-point favorite (with a total of 53.5). The Bears were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North in the preseason poll behind Oregon and Washington and ahead of Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State, so it's a mid-level Pac-12 team, the kind of team Nevada should beat if it fancies itself a Top 25 team (and it's getting preseason votes). If I'm betting on this game, I'd take Nevada on the money line. Cal's offense is not good. It averaged 20.2 ppg last year, 21.2 ppg the year before and 21.5 ppg the year before that. That's three straight seasons of bottom 20 in the nation in scoring. Nevada, assuming Strong plays, should be able to out-score a limited Cal offense. As for attendance, as I noted above, I'm going 7,000 or so Wolf Pack fans, which is a lot. There have been games at Mackay Stadium in recent years that barely got to 7,000 fans.

The transfer losses of Zane Meeks, Kane Milling and Robby Robinson didn't tamp down expectations at all, but the losses of transfers Addison Patterson (Oregon) and Trey Wade (Wichita State) might have to a small degree. However, that opened space for transfers AJ Bramah (Robert Morris) and Kenan Blackshear (FAU). I prefer Patterson and Wade over Bramah and Blackshear, but it's not a massive difference. The foundation of a good team was already in place with all five starters, including All-Mountain West guards Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge Jr., returning in addition to five-star recruit Will Baker (Texas), Bramah and Blackshear joining the fold with prep signees Nick Davidson and Jalen Weaver. Nevada should have the MW's best depth, although you could argue SDSU and Colorado State have more star power. The Wolf Pack will be in the mix for a MW regular-season title.

The reasons to believe this team is legit include:

* The Sherfield-Cambridge combination (that's a talented, veteran and experienced backcourt)

* A deluge of bigs (with Warren Washington, K.J. Hymes and Will Baker, the Wolf Pack has more talented size than any MW school)

* The versatility (Nevada can match up against opponents with various lineups, going big and small)

* The year of growth (given the popularity of the transfer portal, the Wolf Pack has to be one of the few NCAA teams to return all five starters, and Steve Alford and Craig Neal pride themselves in year-over-year player development)

* The depth (Nevada's roster was top-heavy last year, but this Wolf Pack team should be able to legitimately go 10 deep; two starters from last year could shift into reserve roles)

* The schedule (I know Wolf Pack fans didn't like the non-conference schedule, but that schedule lines up for a 25-win season)

Colorado State sold $239 million in revenue bonds, payable through 2055, to cover the cost of the construction and interest on those bonds. It was financed entirely through the bond sale with no general fund or tuition funding. That's obviously a risky proposition. San Diego State used the same formula, with a small amount of the $320 million cost coming via private donations, but the majority of the bill coming via bonds. Those will be repaid from future stadium revenue. Mackay Stadium's 2016 renovation, which cost $11.5 million, also was funded by bonds in addition to two $1 million donations from foundations. With CSU and SDSU, these are basically bets on the future. You go and build a new stadium in hopes of getting into a power conference, which would increase revenue tremendously. If it doesn't happen and attendance isn't robust, you could end up with major debt issues.

As for your question about overall finances, Nevada gets comparatively little revenue from its state/university/students fees for athletics and is just so-so in private fundraising. We all love the fact Nevada doesn't have a state incomes tax, but the downside is the state-wide revenue isn't great, so Nevada doesn't fund higher education at a high level. There's a trickle-down impact on college athletics as a result, which gives the Wolf Pack one of the two smallest budgets in the Mountain West on an annual basis. The numbers have certainly changed since then, but in 2015 I did a story that showed Nevada got $9.2 million annually from the state/university (33.7 percent of its budget). The average state/university money for the 10 other full-time MW members was $15.4 million, or 40.2 percent of their overall budget. That's a difference of more than $6 million per year. That's a lot of money. The same held true for university-only support (Nevada got $4.3 million a year compared to the MW average of $12.3 million a year) and student fee money (Nevada got $2.5 million a year compared to the MW average of $4 million a year).

As noted above, athletics has got two $1 million donations for the Mackay Stadium renovation in addition to two $1 million gifts from athletic alums (Ramon Sessions in basketball and Don Weir in baseball) in the last five years. So it's had some big gifts. But the lack of a lead gift for an indoor football practice facility, especially given the current air-quality issues, remains a major issue. I can't tell you why Nevada hasn't been able to land such a gift (UNLV, as we cite below, got an $8 million estate gift for its basketball programs in February). But it's one thing that has held the Wolf Pack back in the facility arms race.

Per the USA Today database, Colorado State got $23,935,343 in school funds/student fees in the most recent reporting year. Nevada, comparatively, got $14,383,554. Colorado State spent $16,532,470 on coaching salaries compared to Nevada's $12,604,243. So the Rams do spend big on salaries even if it hasn't always led to wins. Colorado State gets a lot of university/student money. The only MW schools that get more in university/student money on an annual basis is Air Force ($40,851,962) and SDSU ($29,222,098).

Yes. Coach Alford has seven more years left on his contact, which means seven more recruiting classes. So as good as Grant Sherfield is, and he's fabulous, I do think Coach Alford will land a player who is of that caliber or better moving forward. Coach Alford nabbing Sherfield was obviously influenced by their relationship built when he the head coach was at UCLA. Coach Alford doesn't have that feather in the cap anymore, but once he gets Nevada up and running at the level most expect, he should be in on some great recruiting battles and land some future NBA players. I would just expect those to come via transfers (like Sherfield) rather than out of the prep ranks.

Trent Johnson's team reached the Sweet 16 and was 12th in the nation in KenPom with a plus-22.75 rating; Eric Musselman's team reached the Elite 8 and was 18th in the nation with a plus-21.56 rating. So, like you said, very similar. It would have been a fun battle because the styles of play were so different. That Stanford team started two 7-footers in Robin and Brook Lopez and had a third future NBA player in Landry Fields. Arkansas played a small-ball, fast-paced offense. Stanford grinded things to a halt and played inside-out. Both were great defensively. I'd take Arkansas, which went further in the NCAA Tournament and gave eventual NCAA champ, Baylor, its toughest game. Stanford needed overtime to get past Marquette in the second round before getting blown out by 20 in the Sweet 16 by Texas. Both were great teams, but I'm taking Arkansas to win 60 percent of the matchups. It really comes down to whether the Razorbacks defense could handle the Lopez twins.

I haven't seen the Michael Jordan Space Jam movie, so I can't tell you. I did watch the LeBron James one, and the first 30 minutes of that movie are bad. Once it got to the animated portion of the movie, it was watchable. I did enjoy the game action, although that lasted forever. Overall, I'd give the LeBron Space Jam a C-. I'll have to watch the Jordan one to compare.

It has to be No. 1. I know there have been a lot of no-hitters this season (eight of them), but only four players in MLB history have thrown a no-hitter in their first big-league start, and two of those came when the mound was 50 feet from the hitter (rather than the current 60 feet, 6 inches). So, Tyler Gilbert tossing a no-hitter Saturday is one of the most unlikely pitching performances in MLB history. A top-10 list of single-game former Aces performances in the big leagues would require a couple hours of searching game logs, so I don't have time for that. But I have done stories before on the 19 best players to wear an Aces uniform and the 11 best players in franchise history, if those are of interest.

Three, currently. Jordan Caroline signed with Dolomiti Energia Trentino in Serie A (that's the top level of Italian basketball). Jalen Harris signed with Vanoli Cremona, also in Serie A. Jazz Johnson has signed with A.S. Pistoia Basket in Serie A2 (the second level of Italian basketball). Johnson played in Serie A last season. Caroline tore up a Taiwanese league that was semi-pro earlier this year, so Serie A will be a much better challenge. Johnson might put up the best stats of the three given the level of competition, but you'd rather be Harris or Caroline given the salary difference between the two leagues.

For whatever reason, the Mountain West did not release a preseason poll in volleyball (the season starts Wednesday). The Wolf Pack women's soccer team (season starts Friday) was picked in the preseason poll to finish last in the 11-team Mountain West. Both teams finished in last place in the MW in the spring. I'd put more faith in the volleyball team over-achieving those marks given the history of the two programs.

I'm not surprised given she was in the running for other Power 5 jobs, including UCLA. Connections trump everything in college athletics, and she was tied in and was going to get a Power 5 at some stage. While UNLV's revenue sports were bad under Reed-Francois — football was 13-29 overall and 8-22 in the MW; men's basketball was 66-57 overall and 39-33 in the MW — she did hit on a number of non-revenue coaching hires (three have already been named MW coach of the year). She improved fundraising (including obtaining an $8 million estate gift for the basketball programs), which is one of two things athletic directors are judged on (the other is hiring coaches). Would I have hired Reed-Francois? No, just because she hasn't proven she can run competent revenue sports (to be fair, it's early on Marcus Arroyo in football). But I'm not surprised she was hired to run a Power 5 athletic department. It was only a matter of time.

Erick Harper has been in athletic administration for more than 30 years, including at UNLV since 2012, so I hope he'll get a chance even though I doubt he gets the job. Lon Kruger has been mentioned, but you can't have the father of one of your revenue sport coaches running the department. That doesn't work due to potential conflicts of interest. So I'd just offer the UNLV job to alums Kenny Mayne, Guy Fieri and Suge Knight and tell them the first person to accept at the lowest salary gets the gig.

Projected standings for the 5A

1. Damonte Ranch

2. Bishop Manogue

3. McQueen

4. Reed

5. Spanish Springs

6. Douglas

7. Reno

8. Carson

9. Galena

Projected standings for the 3A

1. Churchill County

2. Fernley

3. Truckee

4. North Valleys

5. South Tahoe

6. Spring Creek

7. Hug

8. Elko

9. Lowry

10. Wooster

11. Sparks

12. Dayton

It's a tie for first place between Rick Moranis' "One Time" speech in Little Giants with Al Bundy's "Football Glory" speech in that same movie. Both are below. I'd take Moranis' speech.

The V&T Railway, which was fun, definitely added to the poor air-quality. Lots of dark smoke coming out of that old beast.

Yes, I am aware the air quality is poor all over Northern Nevada. In fact, I'm off to Costco to buy a big-ass fan and a helicopter so I can try and blow this crap out of town. See y'all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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