Joe Santoro: Quarterback controversy for the Nevada Wolf Pack?

There is no quarterback controversy at the University of Nevada.

Forget about a weekly quarterback carousel, a quarterback merry-go-round and a daily game of quarterback musical chairs up on North Virginia Street.

It’s not happening. Not this week, at least. Carson Strong is still the Nevada Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback.

“I think Carson has earned that right by the way he’s practiced and played the last few months,” Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell said earlier this week.

Strong might have earned the Wolf Pack’s starting job this summer and for the first three games of the year but that didn’t stop Norvell from holding him out of last Saturday’s 37-21 win at UTEP in favor of backups Cristian Solano and Malik Henry.

“I was really pleased we could play Cristian and Malik both,” Norvell said.

Norvell was pleased. Northern Nevada was confused. So who, exactly, will start this Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) when Hawaii comes to Mackay Stadium?

“Most likely it will be Carson,” Norvell said.

Most likely? Yes, Wolf Pack fans, Norvell is enjoying this. He also enjoys playing with the minds of the rest of the Mountain West.

“We’re obviously not going to give Hawaii a game plan,” Norvell said. “I think we have three quarterbacks we could win with. I really do. I’ve felt that since the spring. We can play them all. We can play one.”

That means absolutely nothing. Or it can mean everything. That is simply vintage Juking Jay, moving left and right and saying nothing. As usual.

“We’re fortunate we do have more than one quarterback who can play,” Norvell said.

There is a theory in football that if you feel you have more than one quarterback, you actually don’t have any quarterback at all.

“It’s never been in our nature to play multiple quarterbacks,” Norvell said last week.

Baseball has starting rotations. Football has a starting quarterback. Nevada has been no different in recent decades.

Take away the occasional start by a backup because of an injury to the starter, the Wolf Pack has rarely played multiple quarterbacks consistently in a given season.

The last true quarterback controversy at Mackay Stadium was in 1991 and 1992 when Fred Gatlin and Chris Vargas competed for head coach Chris Ault’s affection. Both of them passed for at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1992.

There have been other quarterback questions pop up now and then during a Wolf Pack season since 1992. But those brief issues were usually decided quickly, such as when youngsters like David Neill (1998), Jeff Rowe (2004) and Cody Fajardo (2011) beat out the competition and never gave up the job.

Norvell, though, seems to be planting the seeds for a genuine quarterback controversy this year.

“All of them will be available to play every week,” Norvell said.

Norvell has obviously thought a lot about how he can use all three of his quarterbacks. And you know offensive coordinator Matt Mumme’s head is spinning with all of the possibilities.

“We have certain things where guys will be available for certain packages,” Norvell said. “We’ll keep looking at that as we go and try to find things guys do well. We’re not afraid to make those kinds of decisions to get guys on the field.”

It is indeed possible that you might see Strong, Solano and Henry on the field all at once at times this year. The possibility might make the heads of opposing Mountain West defensive coordinators explode, if it doesn’t make Mumme’s head explode in excitement first.

Last Saturday, though, brought back some unpleasant memories. It was just two years ago, after all, that Norvell put starter Ty Gangi on the bench just two games into the season in favor of untested freshman Kaymen Cureton. The move produced a loss to mighty Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference and turned the season into a dumpster fire. And then last year Norvell kept a “banged up” Gangi on the bench and gave Solano his first career start in a crucial game against Fresno State. That move produced three points and a loss the Pack never recovered from in the West Division race.

It just seemed a little dangerous that Norvell this past Saturday would risk toying with his freshman quarterback’s confidence and psyche just four games into the season.

“He was really banged up last week,” said Norvell of Strong, explaining the quarterback change. “He could have played but we didn’t feel it was right to put him in that vulnerable position.”

He could have played? Well, then he should have played. That’s what your offensive leader is supposed to do, especially for a head coach that is always preaching grit.

It’s no secret that Strong hasn’t played all that well since the fourth quarter of the season opener against Purdue. His last two games produced just one touchdown and 25 points combined.

He seemed to need a confidence boost. The entire offense needed a boost. UTEP, which should change its name to UWIN, is the perfect confidence booster for any quarterback, let alone a freshman who had been on a performance rollercoaster for three weeks.

Solano and the offense got that boost. Strong, though, now has to go into one of the most pivotal games of the season this Saturday after not playing for two weeks and coming off two lackluster performances.

He also had to watch Solano throw for two touchdowns, complete 13-of-19 passes, rush for 100 yards on just 10 carries and put 37 points on the board. Is that the way to boost the confidence of your freshman quarterback?

We’ll find out Saturday.

Norvell, though, thought Strong needed a week of rest more than he needed a confidence boost.

“Yes, it was good for him,” said Norvell when asked if Strong benefited by just standing back and watching a game after running for his life for three weeks against Purdue, Oregon and Weber State.

“We’re like most teams,” Norvell said. “We’re a little banged up and whenever we can freshen up and get our guys back, it’s helpful.”

So consider the one-game vacation for Strong merely a refreshing shower and a three-hour whiff of smelling salts used to clear his head.

Nothing more. Or less. It wasn’t an American Idol quarterback audition for Solano. It wasn’t a not-so-subtle reminder to Strong to step up or take a step back. Again, we’ll find out on Saturday whether it worked or not.

“I think our team knows,” Norvell said. “You guys (the media) don’t get to watch our practices but our kids know who’s out there and doing a good job. They are not surprised about who is in there.”

That’s Norvell’s way of saying that it doesn’t matter that everyone else was surprised to see Solano on the field in old El Paso last Saturday night. The people that matter (Strong included) were not surprised.

“We have confidence in all of them,” Pack running back Kelton Moore said. “It’s not really a challenge when we change quarterbacks because we practice with them all. We rotate quarterbacks a lot in practice so everybody already has a feel for each other.”

No controversy here, Pack fans.

Not yet, at least.


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