Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Strong will be tested immediately | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Strong will be tested immediately

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore against Auburn in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 28. Called 'the most exciting player in all of college football,' Moore will visit Mackay Stadium on Aug. 30.
Mark Humphrey/AP | AP

Sports fodder…

When it comes to quarterback competitions, apparently, only the Strong survives. Well, for now, at least. Redshirt freshman Carson Strong has been named the Nevada Wolf Pack’s starting quarterback for the season opener Aug. 30 against Purdue at Mackay Stadium. Strong, who started working under Pack head coach Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme in the spring of 2018, beat out junior newcomer Malik Henry. That extra year of experience in the Pack’s system, as well as his remaining four years of eligibility, is likely the reason why Strong beat out Henry. Another reason is that the strong-armed freshman just might be better suited for the pass-happy Air Raid offense. But all that matters now is how long he will keep the starting job. Strong’s first two tests are Purdue at home and Oregon on the road. Welcome to Division I football, young man. If Strong survives those two he could be off and, well, throwing.

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We have no doubt that Norvell and Mumme will somehow coax good numbers out of any quarterback that takes a snap this season. They, after all, got 205 yards and three touchdowns out of Kaymen Cureton against Idaho State in 2017 and 195 yards passing and 71 yards rushing out of Cristian Solano against Fresno State last year. Putting up numbers in the Air Raid is not the trick for a quarterback. Winning is the trick. Air Raid quarterbacks under Mumme and his father Hal do not have a great track record of consistent winning. Both Cureton and Solano lost their only college starts. Will Norvell stay the course with Strong if the Pack starts 0-2? Don’t forget he lifted Ty Gangi after an 0-2 start in 2017. What if Henry comes on in relief sometime in the first two weeks and plays well? We could be looking at the Pack’s first legitimate quarterback controversy since Fred Gatlin-Chris Vargas in the early 1990s.

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Wolf Pack football fans will be in for a treat on Aug. 30 when the Purdue Boilermakers come to Mackay Stadium for the Pack’s season opener. Purdue’s Rondale Moore, labeled the most exciting player in all of college football by ESPN, will test the Wolf Pack defense and special teams. Moore, a wide receiver, punt and kickoff returner, is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound, 19-year-old sophomore. He was the Big 10’s Freshman of the Year, wide receiver of the year and a First Team All America (according to the Associated Press, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports) last year. He caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns and set the Purdue school record for all-purpose yards (2,215). He was also awarded the Paul Hornung Award after the year as the nation’s most versatile player. He could be looking for a way to kickstart his Heisman Trophy campaign in the season opener Aug. 30.

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Moore will likely be the best visiting player to grace Mackay Stadium’s plastic grass this season. He is also one of the most heralded Pack opponents to play at Mackay for at least the last 20 years and, well, maybe ever. A quick glance at the last two decades at Mackay brings to mind future NFL players such as TCU’s Ladainian Tomlinson, who ran for 176 yards and two touchdowns at Mackay in 2000. Fresno State quarterback David Carr passed for 368 yards and four scores in 2001. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert passed for 414 yards and three touchdowns in 2009. Boise State’s Doug Martin rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. California’s Shane Vereen ran for 198 yards and three scores also in 2010. Fresno’s Derek Carr passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 and came back the very next year at Mackay to pass for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Fresno wide receiver Davante Adams had nine catches for 120 yards and one score in 2012. Boise State’s Jay Ajayi ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns in 2014 and San Diego State running backs Rashaad Penny (208 yards, two scores) and Donnel Pumphrey (198, 1) shredded the Pack in 2016.

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The good news for the Wolf Pack is that Moore will have a new quarterback throwing him passes this season. The bad news is that it is 23-year-old, fifth-year senior Elijah Sindelar, threw for 18 touchdowns as the starter in 2017. Sindelar was limited to just two games and 283 yards last year as he recovered from knee surgery after the 2017 season. He takes over for departed senior David Blough, who passed for 3,705 yards and 25 scores a year ago, mainly to Moore. Athlon rates Sindelar as the 38th best quarterback in the country and the sixth-best in the Big 10.

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Sindelar, though, is just the fourth-best quarterback that the Wolf Pack will face this year, according to Athlon. Also ranked ahead of Sindelar on Athlon’s list is Hawaii’s Cole McDonald (32nd), Utah State’s Jordan Love (12th) and Oregon’s Justin Herbert (fifth). Athlon ranks Nevada quarterback Malik Henry as the 108th best in the nation (out of 130). That, obviously, was before Strong was named the starter. But Strong likely would have been ranked a bit lower because of his lack of experience and Henry, after all, has Florida State on his resume. Henry is ranked ahead of three quarterbacks (New Mexico’s Tevaka Tuioti, UTEP’s Kai Locksley and San Jose State’s Josh Love) on the Pack schedule this year and below eight (Love, Herbert, Sindelar, McDonald, UNLV’s Armani Rogers, Wyoming’s Sean Chambers, San Diego State’s Ryan Agnew and Fresno State’s Jorge Reyna). What does Athlon know? They didn’t, after all, even know who would be starting for the Pack. The good news for the Pack is that Strong and Henry are talented enough to be better than all of the quarterbacks mentioned above. And they have the Air Raid at their disposal.

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ESPN recently ranked the Top 50 college football programs over the last 150 years and, well, the Wolf Pack was nowhere to be found. The list included programs from all classes of college football. That’s why Yale was ranked No. 7, North Dakota State was No. 10, Princeton No. 11, Harvard No. 13 and Mount Union was No. 16. The list simply recognized national championships and continued success over a long period of time, two things that have escaped the Pack for the most part. Boise State, which was a junior college until 1968, was surprisingly ranked No. 23 and the only national title they’ve won was in 1980 while in Division I-AA. Did they rank Boise too high? Probably. But numerous Top 25 rankings over the last 20 years and big bowl victories (Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl was the biggest) put the Broncos at No. 23 and the Pack into oblivion.