Joe Santoro: How soon will Nevada Wolf Pack fans love Malik Henry? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: How soon will Nevada Wolf Pack fans love Malik Henry?

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Will Nevada cheerleaders be leading fans in pro-Malik Henry chants on Saturday?
Tom R. Smedes/AP | FR171463 AP

Sports fodder…

How long will it take for Nevada football fans on Saturday night at Mackay Stadium to shout “Oh Henry!” at the latest and supposedly greatest Wolf Pack starting quarterback? How does the second he steps out onto the field sound? If you believe the hype and buy into the five recruiting stars that have been attached to Malik Henry’s name since he was a Southern California high school phenomenon, you are probably amazed that there already hasn’t been a candy bar named after him. One thing, though, is clear. Head coach Jay Norvell seems to love (his words, not mine) the young man. Norvell brought Henry to the Wolf Pack last January when no other Division I coach would touch the controversial quarterback. Norvell has already called Henry “a very interesting young man” and has said he is “misunderstood.” Norvell has already said that Henry has the type of quarterback skills that could allow him to have as much impact on the Wolf Pack program as Colin Kaepernick. “He needs support,” said Norvell of Henry back in January. “He needs a coaching staff that will love him.” Norvell, it seems, envisioned Henry as his starting quarterback since the second Henry agreed to come to Northern Nevada.

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San Jose State at Mackay Stadium with two weeks to prepare is the perfect time to break in a new starting quarterback. The timing of Carson Strong’s benching and Henry’s emergence does not seem all that random. But only Norvell knows that. If you are a coach that loves a certain quarterback don’t you toss him into a situation where he could succeed right away? Of course you do. Purdue in Week One was not that situation. Oregon in Week Two was certainly not that situation. This is the right situation. Henry has no excuses not to succeed on Saturday.

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Did Norvell treat Strong fairly by removing him as the starting quarterback, in effect, just before halftime of the Hawaii game two weeks ago? Strong, don’t forget, beat out Henry last August to become the starter. Strong, don’t forget, engineered one of the most dramatic Wolf Pack comebacks in recent history against Purdue in his first college start. Strong, don’t forget, earned the starting job because of the way he practiced and worked all spring and summer, according to Norvell. Why did Norvell bench Strong against UTEP, a team that he could have shredded? Norvell said it was because Strong was banged up physically. But he also said Strong could have played. Then why didn’t he play? Wasn’t he supposed to be your starting quarterback? Why didn’t Norvell allow Strong to play the whole game against Hawaii? It appears Strong didn’t earn the right to be thrown back on the bench so quickly. It seems like some coaches love some quarterbacks more than others.

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Strong completed 80-of-134 passes for 729 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in just 3 ½ games. Does that warrant a benching? He played just three full games and one of them at Oregon, a game in which even Kaepernick would have run for cover. In the other two Strong was a combined 60-of-95 for 594 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Strong was 7-of-14 for 46 yards and an interception against Hawaii. But three of his passes were dropped. Nobody is saying Strong is a young Peyton Manning. But the struggles on offense were not entirely his fault. The offensive line has been awful. The run game has been an afterthought. The playcalling, as usual, has been spotty at best. But someone had to take the blame.

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It will be interesting to see how the Wolf Pack’s play calling changes with Henry. Will they encourage Henry to simply take off and run if his first read is not wide open? Will they hand the ball more often to the running backs? Will the receivers stop dropping passes? Will the Pack allow Henry to be more aggressive, throwing passes downfield instead of simply flipping the ball off on screens to the backs and wide receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage? The Wolf Pack is running out of starting quarterbacks. This one has to work.

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Henry might be amazing. Florida State thought he was their future. ESPN, at one point, rated him as the best quarterback prospect in the country. Henry keeps getting chances to succeed because of his tremendous ability even though he has battled with teammates, coaches and officials throughout his career. “I just believe in athleticism at the quarterback position,” said Norvell back in January when asked about Henry. The biggest reason Kaepernick was so successful at Nevada is because he was always the best athlete on the field in Mountain West games. Henry will also likely be the best athlete on the field in Mountain West games. Pure athletic ability always covers a multitude of sins (on and off the field) in the Mountain West.

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Saturday night will not be the first time Henry has debuted in the state of Nevada. He made his first appearance for Long Beach Poly his senior year in September 2015 in a game against Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. Gorman won 52-13 but Henry, who had already committed to Florida State, passed for 252 yards with two long touchdowns (64, 46 yards). He only completed 13-of-31 passes but the explosiveness he showed against Gorman is the reason why coaches dream of coaching him.

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Norvell is exactly right when he says Henry needs a coaching staff that loves him. First of all, Henry hasn’t stayed long enough at any one place for a coach to even really get to know him. He’s been at four high schools and three colleges already. Henry, who already committed to Florida State, left Southern California to enroll at IMG Academy in Florida so he could play under former Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke. Weinke, though, left before the 2015 season started to become a St. Louis Rams assistant. So Henry transferred to Long Beach Poly. Jason Brown, his coach at Independence College in Kansas, was even more controversial than Henry. His coach at Long Beach Poly, former New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, let Henry and his teammates run up the score in their final game of the year in 2015, beating Millikan 70-3. At one point, Long Beach Poly scored to go up 44-3 and Pierce had them go for the 2-point conversion and then try an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. What does that teach a young man about sportsmanship? A young athlete’s past is not always his fault. Norvell just might be the coach Henry has always needed.