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Ranking every Nevada Wolf Pack starting quarterback over the last five decades

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Nevada football has a long history of great quarterback play dating back to the 1940s when Stan Heath became the first college quarterback to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Over the last several weeks, I've been piecing together this column, which ranks every quarterback who has started at least one game at quarterback for Nevada since Chris Ault's first year as the program's head coach in 1976 (I have media guides and stats back to the 1973 season, although the Wolf Pack had several starters at quarterback from 1973-75, none being standouts). I also included on this list three Wolf Pack Hall of Famers who played quarterback at Nevada before the 1976 season, including Ault, Stan Heath and Bill Mackrides.

These rankings only include each quarterback's college tenure, so no bonus points for what they did after college. I'm only ranking the quality of the quarterback's play during their Wolf Pack careers, which includes team success. Enjoy!

34. Joe Pizzo: Pizzo started six games for Nevada during the 1983 season before breaking his ankle, that being his most extensive playing time with the Wolf Pack. Pizzo, who transferred to Nevada after Cal Poly Pomona dropped its football program, completed 47 percent of his passes for 706 yards, five touchdowns (plus two rushing) and seven interceptions in 1983. He played sparingly in 1984, completing 39.3 percent of his passes for 277 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

33. Kaymen Cureton: In 2017, Jay Norvell made the ill-fated decision to bench Ty Gangi and start a true freshman, Cureton, who started two games, losses to Idaho State and Wazzu. He completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 213 yards with three TDs and one interception. Cureton, who was put in a tough situation, struggled to stay in the pocket, often breaking plays (22 rushes for minus-3 yards). He moved to safety before transferring to Eastern Kentucky and MSU-Northern as a QB.

32. Mo Jones: It's been rare for a freshman to start a season opener for Nevada. Jones' only start at quarterback for the Wolf Pack came in that scenario in a 48-6 loss to Oregon State to open the 1998 season (the next quarterback to start at QB as a freshman was Carson Strong in 2019). Jones went 13-of-26 for 140 yards with two picks and a 79.8 quarterback rating against the Beavers before moving to receiver where he became a valuable player (70 catches, 855 yards, five TDs in his career).

31. Kevin Wheeler: Wheeler played for the Wolf Pack in the late 1970s and early 1980s, starting a few games over those years despite dealing with a rotator cuff injury in his throwing shoulder that briefly made him switch to defense. A good runner, Wheeler completed 99-of-202 passes (49 percent) for 1,280 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his career. His most extensive playing time came as a freshman in 1978 and a senior in 1981, his rotator cuff injury coming in 1980.

30. Erik Stidham: Stidham started a couple of games for Nevada in 1998, getting the call in the second game of the year (against Colorado State) and again versus North Texas after David Neill was suspended after fraudulent use of a telephone credit card. Those were both Wolf Pack losses. A junior in 1998, Stidham appeared in six games that year and completed 53-of-87 passes (60.9 percent) for 603 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 114.4 quarterback rating.

29. Cristian Solano: Largely a career backup, Solano was the frontrunner to win the starting job heading into the 2019 season but broke his hand early in fall camp, with Carson Strong eventually taking the job. Solano did start two games (2018 against Fresno State and 2019 against UTEP), completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 504 yards with two touchdowns (plus one rushing) against six interceptions. Strong called him the best teammate he's ever had, so he got high marks there.

28. Jeff Ardito: A graduate of North Tahoe High, Ardito was the Wolf Pack's starter in 1980, a 6-4-1 season, after Kevin Wheeler went down with an injury. A sophomore that season, Ardito completed 95-of-191 passes (49.7 percent) for 1,134 yards, which ranked fifth in the Big Sky that season, along six touchdowns and six interceptions. He was beat out for the job by Marshall Sperbeck the following season, with 1980 being his one year of extended playing time.

27. Travis Moore: Playing for Nevada from 2003-06, Moore attempted more than 10 passes in only four games at Nevada, including a 2006 start against San Jose State, a 23-7 win in which he completed 20-of-28 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The majority of Moore's career entailed backing up Jeff Rowe, but he did complete 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,021 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions (quarterback rating of 123) over 16 appearances.

26. Nate Cox: The newest addition to this list, Cox started Nevada's 2021 bowl game, a 52-24 loss to Western Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl in which the Wolf Pack's pass-catching corps was heavily depleted. The 6-foot-9 Cox — the tallest QB to play an FBS game — is the odds-on favorite to be Nevada's starting quarterback in 2022. He's spent two years at Nevada, completing 60 percent of his passes for 289 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. 2022 will dictate his final ranking here.

25. Malik Henry: One of Nevada's most famous quarterbacks, Henry was a top-level recruit who began his career at Florida State before two JC seasons, starring on Netflix's Last Chance U. He started two games for Nevada in 2019. One went well (22-of-37, 352 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions in a 41-38 win over SJSU) and one went poorly (17-of-38, 213 yards, two interceptions in a 36-10 loss to Utah State). Henry lasted just one season at Nevada, his final college stop.

24. Andy Heiser: Nevada's primary starter in 2003, Heiser led the Wolf Pack to one of its biggest wins ever, a 28-17 victory at Washington, the school's first win over a Power 5 program in its FBS era. Heiser completed 19-of-29 passes for 299 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, posting a career-best 179.4 quarterback rating in that game. Overall, he completed 50.6 percent of his passes for 2,356 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 115.6 quarterback rating.

23. Marshall Sperbeck: Sperbeck began his career at Oregon State before transferring to American River College. Nevada was his runner-up when he signed with the Beavers, and Sperbeck joined the Wolf Pack in 1981, becoming a two-year starter. As a junior, he completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,790 yards, 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As a senior, he completed 47.3 percent of his passes for 1,635 yards, 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Nevada went 13-9 in his tenure.

22. Devin Combs: A backup to Cody Fajardo, Combs was an inspirational and gritty JC prospect who didn't have the smoothest throwing motion but got the job done. He started two games, against UNLV in 2012 (a 42-37 win after Nevada trailed 21-0) and versus 2013 national champion Florida State (he went 6-of-9 with a TD playing on a torn ACL). His career numbers were good: 63.2 percent passing, 468 yards, five TDs, one interception, 157.6 passer rating, 221 yards (5.4 per carry), two TDs.

21. Nick Graziano: Best known for getting Wally Pipp-ed by Colin Kaepernick, Graziano was a skilled dual-threat quarterback whose injury against Fresno State in 2007 paved the way for Kaepernick's emergence. Graziano started ahead of Kaepernick the first five games of 2007 and completed 50.3 percent of his passes for 1,356 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions for the Wolf Pack before a standout career at Arkansas Tech, where he was a Division II All-American.

20. Jim Zaccheo: One of two on this list to play in the Little League World Series (Nate Cox did, too), Zaccheo turned down Miami, Oklahoma, Nebraska and UCLA to play for Nevada after a JC stint. The 5-foot-11 QB had a quarterback rating of 142 (fourth in the nation) as a junior, passing for 2,158 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. As a senior, he threw for 2,592 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Nevada went 12-10 during his starting seasons, relatively down years.

19. Zack Threadgill: Threadgill saw decent action in 2001 but really got his chance as a full-time starter in 2002 and formed an excellent combination with star receiver Nate Burleson, who caught 138 passes for 1,629 yards and 12 touchdowns from Threadgill that season. Nevada went 5-7 in 2001, with Threadgill posting OK numbers during his three-year playing career (59.5 percent passing, 4,376 yards, 28 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, 126 QB rating).

18. Tyler Stewart: Stewart backed up Cody Fajardo for two seasons before rising to starter in 2014 and 2015, his college career eventually ending after a shoulder injury. A tall, strong-armed thrower, Stewart completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,550 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, although he was a little miscast in the Wolf Pack's read-option offense. He went 11-11 as a starter, leading Nevada to a 2015 Arizona Bowl win (one of seven Pack quarterbacks to win a bowl game).

17. Tyler Lantrip: Lantrip served as the bridge between record-setting quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo, starting a few games in 2011 when he completed 61.5 percent of his 179 attempts for 1,553 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions while posting a 146.1 quarterback rating, relatively high. In fact, Lantrip had a higher career quarterback rating than Kaepernick or Fajardo, although read-option Pistol wasn't really the best offense for his throw-first skillset.

16. Chris Ault: Before lifting the program as the Wolf Pack's head coach, Ault started for Nevada at quarterback from 1965-67 and was a quality gun-slinger despite his diminutive size. He was the program's all-time passing leader upon graduation (3,436 yards) after completing 319-of-580 passes (55 percent), also leading the team in career passing touchdowns (30) and rushing scores (16) while throwing his share of interceptions. Nevada was 16-11-4 with Ault as its starting quarterback.

15. Ty Gangi: It took an injury to Tyler Stewart in 2015 to get Gangi on the field, but he played well after getting his chance. Originally a walk-on at Colorado who spent a year at Ventura College, Gangi was the Wolf Pack starter for 2.5 seasons, starting 27 games and going 13-14. He threw for 7,378 yards and 56 touchdowns, adding 543 yards and 10 scores on the ground. He had back-to-back years with at least 24 passing touchdowns, throwing for a career-best 3,331 yards as a senior.

14. Larry Worman: Worman holds the distinction of being the team's starting quarterback the first time the Pack became the No. 1 team in the country (at the FCS level), doing so in 1978 after an 11-0 regular season. He was Nevada's starter from 1978-79, with the Wolf Pack going 19-5 in those seasons. Worman was a second-team All-American in 1978 after throwing for 1,702 yards and 17 touchdowns against six picks. He added 1,492 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 picks the following year.

13. Jeff Tisdel: Best know for his tenure as the Wolf Pack's head coach from 1996-99, Tisdel was a second-team AP All-American D-II quarterback. He was the first Nevada quarterback to throw for 300 yards in a game, doing so in a 1977 win over Boise State (314 yards en route to a 28-10 victory). Tisdel's best year came in 1976 (2,542 yards, 26 TDs), Chris Ault's first year as Nevada's coach. He was the only D-II player in the 1977 East-West Shrine Game and is in the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame.

12. David Neill: Neill put up huge individual numbers, but it didn't translate to many wins. He was phenomenal as a freshman, throwing for 3,249 yards, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and that ended up being his best season. Neill's 17 career 300-yard games are tied with Carson Strong as a school record. His 10,901 career passing yards is still a Nevada record. And he accounted for 87 touchdowns against 33 interceptions. But his teams went 14-31, and wins have to count for something.

11. Fred Gatlin: The top 10 on this list are either in the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame or will be as soon as they're eligible. I have argued for years Gatlin deserves enshrinement, too. Upon his graduation, Gatlin ranked second in program history in passing offense (8,312) and passing touchdowns (63); he's still top six in both. He was 33-8 as a starter; a two-time offensive team MVP; a member of three conference-title teams; and is one of two Pack quarterbacks with three career wins over rival UNLV.

10. Bill Mackrides: One of three Wolf Pack alums to start an NFL game at quarterback (the others rank first and third on this list), Mackrides starred for the Wolf Pack from 1943-44 and in 1946, not playing in 1945 so he could serve in Japan with the U.S. Marine Corps. During his tenure, the Wolf Pack had some of its most successful seasons, compiling a 15-7-1 record. A two-time NFL champion, Mackrides was the second Wolf Pack quarterback to be inducted into the Nevada Hall of Fame.

9. Jeff Rowe: One of two local players on this list, Rowe led McQueen High to the state title game in 2001 before signing with the Wolf Pack. He had five active seasons at Nevada, becoming the full-time starter in 2004 before leading the Wolf Pack to its first WAC title in 2005. Rowe, the first Pistol offense quarterback, went 21-15 as a Nevada starter, throwing for 7,862 yards and 55 touchdowns (plus 13 more on the ground) against 33 interceptions before becoming a fifth-round draft pick.

8. Mike Maxwell: A two-time All-Big West pick and the 1994 conference offensive player of the year, Maxwell led Nevada to back-to-back Big West titles, doing so in 1994 and 1995. He had 14 300-yard games, third in program history, and also ranks top 10 in career passing yards (7,256, 10th) and career passing touchdowns (62, sixth). A 2012 inductee into the Nevada Hall of Fame, Maxwell's 160.2 quarterback rating in 1995 was a program record until Carson Strong broke it in 2020.

7. Cody Fajardo: Fajardo's an interesting case study because he was a phenomenal player, one of two in FBS history with 9,000 pass yards and 3,000 rush yards, but his teams only went 21-22 (the only player in our top 10 sans a winning record). He's still a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks in school history, but that comparative lack of winning impacts the placement. Bottom line: He accounted for 13,138 yards and 101 TDs, both second in school history.

6. John Dutton: A transfer from Texas, Dutton was a two-time Big West Offensive Player of the Year, leading the Wolf Pack to two conference championships, both of his years as a starter. Dutton threw for 6,276 yards and 42 touchdowns against 12 interceptions during his two active seasons with the Wolf Pack, passing for at least 300 yards in 10 of his 22 games in silver and blue. A master of the deep ball, Dutton had a tremendous career in the Arena Football League.

5. Eric Beavers: No Nevada quarterback won more games than Beavers, who led the Pack to 39 wins from 1983-86, which included three FCS playoff berths, including two semifinal berths. As an individual performer, Beavers has two of the Wolf Pack's top-10 single-season efforts at his position, setting single-season school records in passing yards and passing touchdowns during his junior season and again as a senior. He led Nevada to a No. 2 ranking in the nation in 1985 and No. 1 in 1986.

4. Carson Strong: The recently departed Strong has the best arm of any Wolf Pack quarterback ever, and that should be rewarded with a top-50 selection in the 2022 draft. Strong's 2020 and 2021 seasons are two of the best ever for a Nevada gun-slinger, as he accumulated 7,044 yards and 63 touchdowns against just 12 interception over 21 games. Unlike many in the top 10 of this list, Strong's teams never won a conference title, but he did post a 20-11 record as a starter, well above average.

3. Stan Heath: One of the two exceptions from the 1940s on our list, Heath was the first NCAA quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards in a season, a feat not repeated for 15 more years. He led Nevada into the AP Top 25 for the first time, doing so in 1948, a season in which he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. The All-American went 18-4 as a starter, and his five TD passes against Oklahoma City in 1948 was a program record for 45 years. He was the No. 5 pick of the 1949 NFL draft.

2. Chris Vargas: After splitting time with Fred Gatlin over his first two active seasons, Vargas took over as the team's starter in 1992 and led the Wolf Pack to the Big West title in its first season at the FBS level. His 1993 season (4,265 yards, 34 touchdowns, 18 interceptions) is one of the best in program history, and Vargas' epic comebacks, including an NCAA-record 35-point rally to beat Weber State in 1991, earned him a place in Wolf Pack lore that will forever make him a fan favorite.

1. Colin Kaepernick: An easy decision for our top choice, Kaepernick is the only college player to accumulate 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in a career. Starting for Nevada from 2007-2010, he went 32-16 as a starter, including a 13-1 campaign in 2010, one of only two seasons the Wolf Pack was ranked in the Division I Top 25. Kaepernick also had the best NFL career among Nevada quarterbacks and is a clear pick for the best starting quarterback in Wolf Pack history.

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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