Joe Santoro: Malik Henry gives life to Nevada Wolf Pack season
For the Nevada Appeal
Malik Henry might need to work on his nickname.
When asked about his M16 moniker, the Nevada Wolf Pack’s No. 16 just flashed a big smile last Saturday afternoon, chuckled a bit and said, “That’s kind of something I like to ride with. I’ve worn No. 16 since high school. So, yeah, that’s a cool nickname.”
OK, yes, being named after a magazine-fed, military assault rifle is probably not the most positive, wholesome, politically-correct NCAA student-athlete image one can portray these days. But if the Wolf Pack was looking for political correctness and wholesomeness, well, the controversial, confident, polarizing, what-you-see-is-what-you-get Malik Henry would not even be on campus right now.
So, yeah, M16 is very cool. Dangerous. But cool.
“The young man is misunderstood,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell warned us last week.
After just one glorious sunny Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium we now fully understand why Norvell gave the controversial star of Netflix’s documentary series “Last Chance U” one last chance.
The former Florida State recruit, from what we witnessed during the Wolf Pack’s 41-38 victory over San Jose State, was born to play quarterback. From the first moment he stepped onto Chris Ault Field last weekend, Henry’s presence alone shouted out follow-me-to-the-promised-land swagger. It was an I’m-the-captain-now moment that seemed to transform Wolf Pack football immediately. Think Colin Kaepernick on a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 2007 at Mackay against Fresno State coming on in relief of an injured Nick Graziano. All that was missing was a clap of thunder, some departing clouds and a warm ray of sunshine flooding the stadium.
“Malik Henry, he’s a great quarterback,” Wolf Pack running back Devonte Lee said. “For him to get his shot and go out there and do what he did, that was just amazing.”
Amazing is a pretty good word for what we saw on Saturday. Henry completed 22-of-37 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown. Yes, he looked more like Ty Gangi than he did Colin Kaepernick but give him time. It was just his first career start.
The dramatics were pure Kap.
Henry’s first pass of the game went for 55 yards to Elijah Cooks. His first pass of the second half went for 75 yards and a touchdown to Romeo Doubs. His final pass of the afternoon was good for 10 yards, setting up Brandon Talton’s walk-off 40-yard field goal as time expired.
There were other eye-opening moments, like the pair of crucial third-down passes to Dominic Christian for first downs in the fourth quarter. He followed those completions to Christian with three in a row to Cooks (twice) and Ben Putman down to the San Jose State 1-yard line, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Toa Taua for a 38-31 lead.
“The last two drives (that broke ties in the fourth quarter) were really big time,” Norvell said. “He had some great throws.”
The numbers (one touchdown, two interceptions) certainly don’t tell the full story of M16’s performance. The numbers, after all, don’t quantify the presence. The command. The boldness. He throws a football with a stunning spiral and arc that deserves to be captured in mid-flight soaring through the air by NFL Films.
“Malik did a great job of taking what the defense gave to him,” Norvell said.
And if the defense didn’t give it to him, he simply went out and took it. The Pack converted 8-of-17 third-down plays into first downs. The 21-year-old brash, bold Henry simply breathed life back into the Wolf Pack football program on Saturday.
“We needed one of those games where everybody played with great effort and we got that chemistry and that mojo going,” Norvell said.
Mr. Mojo Risin’ was wearing No. 16 on his chest and back against San Jose State. The Pack offense hasn’t played that well for a full game since last November in a 49-10 win over Colorado State. The offensive line opened up enough holes for the running game to chew up 189 yards. The wide receivers made big play after big play. That did not happen all season before Saturday. The only difference was the guy with the rifle of a right arm.
“He threw some pretty amazing balls,” Norvell said.
There’s that word again. Get used to it, Pack fans.
With Henry at the controls there were a lot of amazing things going on. Some quarterbacks, after all, play great. Some quarterbacks get their teammates to play with greatness. It’s the special ones that do both. Henry, for one week at least, looks like one of the special ones.
“He got all his teammates involved,” Norvell said.
“I know my teammates are going to make plays for me if I just give them the ball,” Henry said. “Our running backs are so good we don’t really even have to throw the ball. Our Air Raid is designed to get the ball to the playmakers. So I’m going to get it to our playmakers and let them make the plays. That’s what they’re here for.”
Norvell even gushed over some of Henry’s not-so-amazing moments. Henry, after all, was intercepted twice and he did remind us of his “Last Chance U” past when he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during a fourth-quarter Wolf Pack touchdown celebration. He wasn’t perfect. But perfection has never been required to beat San Jose State.
“The thing I was most proud of was how he handled himself after the turnovers,” Norvell said. “The measure of a quarterback is how he responds after mistakes are made.”
“Coach Norvell tells us never to worry,” Henry said. “So every time a little adversity would come I didn’t worry.”
There seems to be a bond between Norvell and Henry that, well, didn’t seem to exist between Norvell and any of his other Pack quarterbacks. He didn’t after all, recruit Ty Gangi and Cristian Solano. David Cornwell fell out of favor quickly, so much so that Norvell never really gave him a chance. Carson Strong, it now appears, was only the starter long enough for Henry to get up to speed. Listening to the Pack coach talk of Henry, though, it’s almost as if he finally has his quarterback at Nevada.
“He’s kind of part coach, really,” said Norvell, flashing a proud papa kind of smile. “He’s a student of the game. I was really impressed. He comes off the field and you ask him what he saw and you can trust him. You ask him, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ And he goes, “Oh, the guy was playing inside and he was covered.’ I go, ‘OK.’”
Norvell and Henry are joined at the mind.
“I’m very comfortable with the offense,” Henry said. “We just put together some plays I like, some plays I feel comfortable with and some plays I can really execute.”
The respect between Henry and Norvell is obvious. The young man who has been labeled uncoachable has seemingly finally found his coach.
“I have a great team here that has stood behind me when I first got here and they are still behind me now,” Henry said. “They never let me give up, never let me put my head down. There was a time I didn’t think I’d play football anymore. But they (his Nevada coaches and teammates) believed in me so I went out there and had to do it for them. And I believe in each one of our guys.”
Norvell spoke in general terms on Monday about such things as character, will and competitiveness. But it was obvious he was really talking about just one player.
“Football is a lot like life,” Norvell said. “It’s hard. You get kicked in the teeth sometimes and it’s how you respond. There’s an old saying, ‘The measure of a man is his will. It’s your will to push through tough times. Your will to push through adversity is the measure of the success you ultimately will have.”
Henry has certainly dealt with adversity in his young football life. It’s still there for everyone to see all over YouTube in case you missed it. But Saturday, more than anything else, was proof that he has taken a huge step towards responding in the right way to all that adversity.
“It’s been a long road for that kid,” Norvell said. “He’s been a lot of places and been through a lot of ups and downs. I’ve always liked junior college quarterbacks because they’ve been humbled. And Malik’s been humbled.”
“I’ve struggled and most of that was on me,” Henry said.
The possibilities and nicknames are endless for this young man. How about Sweet 16? We still like “Oh, Henry!” but being named after a candy bar is probably an NCAA violation. And Henry certainly doesn’t need any more controversy.
“We’re going to keep going higher and we’re not going to look back,” Henry said.
It’s easy to believe him.