Joe Santoro: Drew’s return makes Pack all right | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Drew’s return makes Pack all right

Joe Santoro
Jazz Johnson receiving passes from Lindsey Drew should be a familiar sight for Wolf Pack fans next season.
Steve Ranson/LVN

Lindsey Drew announced this past week he’s coming back to the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team for his senior season. You can now breathe again, Wolf Pack fans. All is finally right in the Wolf Pack basketball world once again. Drew, one of the best all-around point guards to ever play at Nevada, missed the entire 2018-19 season because of Achilles and hip injuries. The 6-foot-4 Drew averaged 6.4 points, 3.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds and almost a block a game for the Pack his first three seasons. He spent those three years running Eric Musselman’s offense, lobbing passes to Cam Oliver, Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline for dunks and threes and leading the defense with his seemingly baseline-to-baseline reach. Drew was also coming into his own as a confident and aggressive offensive player, scoring in double figures in eight of his last 13 full games before getting injured in February 2018. But is that the Lindsey Drew the Wolf Pack will get in 2019-20? Or will we see a watered down Drew this year who’s missing the explosiveness he had 15 months ago or so? Achilles and hip injuries within a year, after all, tend to change a player.

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Speaking of change, nobody knows for sure exactly what the Wolf Pack basketball team will look like this coming season. Right now, all we know for sure is we’ll likely see a lot of Drew passes into the corner for Jazz Johnson threes. One of Musselman’s last recruits, 6-6 forward Shamiel Stevenson, decided recently to transfer to Nebraska. Stevenson, who left Pitt to come to Nevada after the 2017-18 season, was described by Musselman as another Jordan Caroline. Losing one Jordan Caroline is bad enough. But two in one year? The loss of Stevenson is arguably the biggest casualty for the Wolf Pack caused by Musselman going to Arkansas. But there could be another loss as former McDonald’s All American Jordan Brown still hasn’t announced where he will definitely play this fall and winter. College basketball, with all of its head coaching changes and player transfers every off-season, has turned into the NBA G League.

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One transfer with Wolf Pack ties is already getting noticed with his new team. Former Wolf Pack wide receiver McLane Mannix, who caught 107 passes for 1,653 yards and 13 touchdowns in two Nevada seasons, has been granted immediate eligibility at Texas Tech. The 5-10 Mannix, who left Nevada to be closer to his family in Texas, is already being compared to former Texas Tech and NFL wide receivers Wes Welker and Danny Amendola. Mannix, who has two years of eligibility remaining, will play this season for new Texas Tech coach Matt Wells, who coached Utah State of the Mountain West the past six years.

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The loss of Mannix, even though he was one of the most productive receivers in school history for two seasons, won’t cripple the Pack passing game. That’s because coach Jay Norvell always has his roster well stocked with receivers. Elijah Cooks, Kaleb Fossum, Romeo Doubs and Dominic Christian combined for 27 catches for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns in the Pack’s spring game late last month. And there are a half dozen or so other receivers on the roster who could also emerge this fall. Norvell is a wide receiver whisperer. The Pack will never run out of explosive and productive players who can catch the ball as long as he’s head coach. “We’ve got good receivers,” Norvell said after the spring game. “That should be a strong position for us.”

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The biggest question with the Pack football team right now is at quarterback. Freshman Carson Strong, junior Malik Henry and senior Christian Solano all played reasonably well in the spring game, combining to complete 47 passes for 575 yards and four scores. “We need a guy to take charge,” Norvell said after the spring game. “We need repetitions at quarterback. We need someone who will earn the right to be our quarterback.” The Pack just needs a quarterback this season that won’t lose games. With four experienced and capable running backs (led by Toa Taua, Devonte Lee, Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide) and an abundance of wide receivers, the Pack quarterback just needs to be a game manager.

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The 6-foot-4 Strong came to Nevada in the spring of 2018 and has spent more than a year learning Norvell’s and Matt Mumme’s offense. The 6-3 Henry, a former Florida State recruit, has had a rocky college and high school career, bouncing from school to school, and came to Nevada as a walk-on. The 6-1 Solano, who originally committed to the Pack in December 2013 when Brian Polian was head coach, has seemingly been at Nevada longer than Chris Ault. He sat out the 2014 season as a gray shirt, sat out 2015 as a red-shirt and has only started one game for the Pack over the past three years. It would seem the starting job right now is between Strong and Henry with Strong getting a slight edge because of his familiarity with the playbook. But a lot can change between now and when the Pack opens the season Aug. 30 at home against Purdue.

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Whichever quarterback emerges as the starter will be a work in progress. None of the three has played much football in recent years. Strong didn’t play last year at Nevada and sat out his senior year in high school in 2017 because of an injury. Henry has played just one season since 2015 and that was at a junior college in Kansas where he passed for 10 touchdowns and was intercepted eight times in 2017. Solano hasn’t played regularly since his senior year in high school in 2013. Solano and former quarterback Kaymen Cureton, now a defensive back, are the current Pack leaders in starts as a quarterback with one. Patience will be the key this year at quarterback, especially early in the season.

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Henry is the Pack’s quarterback wild card. Norvell, judging by his comments since Henry came to Nevada in early January, is fascinated with Henry’s athletic ability. Comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes were made. You can be sure Norvell will find a way to get Henry on the field this season, even if Henry isn’t the starter. It all comes down to ball protection. Ty Gangi’s tendency to give the ball to the other team the past two years drove Norvell crazy at times. The star of any Norvell offense will always be the wide receivers. Norvell’s teams run the ball so they can throw the ball. He wants the playmakers and the touchdown makers to be the wide receivers. “Our quarterbacks just have to operate more smoothly,” said Norvell last month.