Joe Santoro: Norvell finds a Strong quarterback for Pack
Carson Strong made his coach a little uncomfortable recently.
“A couple times on Saturday (at practice) I just had to walk away from him because he was starting to feel himself a little bit,” Nevada Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said of his starting quarterback. “But Carson is a competitive guy. And that’s great. That’s what you want.”
The entire Mountain West Conference is also starting to feel Carson Strong now. And they can’t simply walk away. The Vacaville (Calif.) Volcano has erupted this season and buried the Wyoming Cowboys, UNLV Rebels and Utah State Aggies alive. Next stop is Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas this Saturday against the New Mexico Lobos.
“He’s the thing we thought he could be when we recruited him (out of Wood High in Vacaville),” said Norvell, who finally hit on a quarterback with Strong after bringing David Cornwell, Kaymen Cureton and Griffin Dahn to Nevada. He even brought in the troubled Malik Henry after Strong.
But, what, exactly, is Strong right now? He is, without question, a confident and fearless young man who is now making the entire Mountain West uncomfortable.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore has completed 96-of-131 passes for 1,181 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions in just three games. His 32 completions a game is third in the country and his 393.7 yards a game is second. He is also one of just two quarterbacks in the country along with Sam Hartman of Wake Forest who have attempted 100 or more passes this season without being intercepted.
“The number one thing we look for in a quarterback is intelligence,” Norvell said. “Number two is accuracy.”
Strong has both of those qualities and about a half dozen others, like a non-stop competitive drive, a strong arm and a belief that he can’t be stopped.
“It’s not rocket science,” Norvell said. “It’s not magic. We’re not trying to fool people. We’re just trying to execute what we do and do it well and do it over and over again.”
Strong passed for 420 yards and four touchdowns in the 37-34 overtime win over Wyoming. He only threw the ball 27 times against UNLV and still produced 350 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-19 win. And last Thursday he shredded Utah State for 411 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-9 win.
No, it isn’t rocket science unless, of course, you consider the rocket fuel their quarterback obviously ingests every morning with his eggs and bacon.
Strong has passed for 350 or more yards in each of his last five games and has now gone six-plus games without being intercepted. He has not been intercepted over his last 282 passes, a streak that started over a year ago (Nov. 9, 2019) against San Diego State.
Over those 282 error-free passes, Strong has completed 194 (69 per cent) for 2,215 yards and 14 touchdowns. It is clearly one of the best stretches covering six-plus games ever turned in by a Wolf Pack quarterback.
“It’s all about just getting in rhythm,” said Strong, whose current rhythm has lasted for an entire calendar year. “It takes me a handful of completions and a handful of first downs (each game) before I feel like I’m in a rhythm. But once I get in rhythm it’s real hard stopping us. I guess there’s no word definition for rhythm as an offense but it’s a real thing.”
Just ask the Mountain West defenses that have been torched by the steady beat of Strong completions, first downs and touchdowns.
“Once you get clicking and the chains start moving, you just start feeling good, just start feeling confident, you just start seeing the field better and the chains just start moving real easy,” Strong said.
The Mountain West obviously can’t hold him.
“Teams should be pretty scared, actually,” Strong said a few weeks back.
Strong hasn’t been afraid of anything as a Wolf Pack quarterback. In his first college start last year he led the Wolf Pack on an eye-opening 34-31 comeback win over Purdue, putting 17 points on the scoreboard in the final seven minutes. The Pack, though, didn’t fully unleash Strong last year until the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Ohio in early January. Strong passed for 402 yards in that game and hasn’t stopped piling up the yards and touchdowns since.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that (turning his quarterback loose) until now,” Norvell said recently. “I do now. It goes to Carson’s maturity.”
Strong is not yet a finished product.
“I’m still missing plenty of throws every single game,” Strong said. “We can still have way more yards, way more touchdowns. We can be better on offense than what we’ve been doing.”
The Wolf Pack, by the way, is second in the nation in passing offense at 397 yards a game and 12th in total offense at 511.7 yards a game. If Strong gets any better he’ll be starring in a super hero movie by the spring.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Strong, after all, is already sharing the billing in the Wolf Pack’s sci-fi super hero movie this year with wide receiver Romeo Doubs.
Strong-to-Doubs is turning into one of the greatest connections in Wolf Pack history. They are becoming the Pack’s Woody and Buzz Lightyear. To the end zone and beyond.
Doubs has been unreal over the first three games of the season, sort of a Hollywood computer generated lightning bolt from the heavens in shoulder pads. The 6-foot-2 speedster from Los Angeles (think of a sleek, stylish Ferrari or Porsche tearing up the L.A. freeways) is arguably the best receiver in the nation right now.
He has caught 26 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns this season. He leads the nation with 157.7 yards a game and is eighth with 8.7 catches a game.
“Romeo is an amazing football player,” said Norvell, giving the highest compliment to a player that any coach could hand out.
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo? Try the end zone. He’ll be there soon enough. That’s where Doubs was last Thursday against Utah State when the Pack needed him the most.
Trailing in regulation time for the first time all season (9-0), the Wolf Pack unleashed its dynamic duo on the overwhelmed Aggies.
In a span of just 18 plays and a mere nine-plus minutes, Strong and Doubs connected six times for 108 yards and three touchdowns on three possessions. That 9-0 deficit late in the first quarter was turned into a 21-9 lead by halftime.
“Romeo was outstanding,” said Norvell, whose face always lights up when he talks about his electric wide receiver. He and Carson have great chemistry.”
Credit the Wolf Pack coaching staff of recruiters for bringing Strong and Doubs to northern Nevada. Eric Scott, who coached at UCLA and Los Angeles-area high schools, was instrumental in getting Doubs. Former Pack assistant Jason Kaufusi, now a linebackers coach at UCLA, keyed the Strong recruiting. Based on talent alone, Doubs should now be catching passes for USC and Strong should be throwing them for Stanford or Cal.
“It’s like bread and butter watching them play,” Pack running back Toa Taua said.
The Strong-Doubs combination is the Pack’s Romeo and Juliet touchdown love connection. Against Wyoming, it was a 9-yard touchdown pass that won the game in overtime. Against UNLV it was a stunning 65-yard touchdown strike for a 17-6 lead in the second quarter. Against Utah State it was a nine-minute flurry of highlights.
“He’s the type of guy, he’s unguardable, really,” Strong said of Doubs. “He’s an amazing receiver. He has unbelievable speed and he tracks the ball real well.”
Norvell said Doubs reminds him of, yes, Jerry Rice. Norvell coached Oakland Raider tight ends in 2002 and 2003 when Rice was a wide receiver for the Silver and Black.
“Jerry Rice didn’t have impressive (40-yard dash) times but on the field nobody ever caught him,” Norvell said. “Romeo is like that. He’s the classic example of a guy who has competitive speed. On game day he just seems faster than he does on a track.”
Doubs, Norvell reminds us each week, is just one of a handful of explosive productive receivers along with Justin Lockhart, Melquan Stovall, Cole Turner and others.
And that doesn’t even include the talented Elijah Cooks, who is as good as any of them. Cooks will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery this week and will be eligible to return for his second senior season next year.
“I really want to make sure I turn them loose,” said Norvell of his stable of receivers. “We want to be aggressive. It’s fun to coach this group of guys.”
Doubs, a junior, is the unquestioned leader of one of the deepest receiver groups in Wolf Pack history.
“He’s really starting to come into his own as a player,” Norvell said. “He really is special. The first time he touched the ball for us he scored a touchdown (an 80-yard punt return touchdown against Portland State to open his freshman year in 2018). He’s been tremendous so far and we just want to continue to build on that.”
To the end zone and beyond.