Standout Nevada quarterback Carson Strong will open his 2021 season by returning to Cal’s Memorial Stadium, the place where he watched many Golden Bears football games while growing up in Vacaville, Calif.
“They [Cal] didn’t recruit me,” said Strong, a fourth-year junior and last season’s Mountain West offensive player of the year, “but I was very interested in Cal. I went to a bunch of games growing up. I watched Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson, Keenan Allen.”
Vacaville is about 40 miles from Berkeley, site of Saturday night’s season opener between Nevada and Cal.
“It’s not too far from my hometown, you know,” Strong said. “I saw Jared Goff, so, yeah, I went to Cal games growing up. I went to their camp, but they didn’t recruit me, so . . .”
Asked if he was disappointed that Cal didn’t recruit him, Strong replied, “I’m happy to be here at Nevada. This is a perfect fit for me. Everything happens for a reason. I love my coaches here. I wouldn’t want to play from any other head coach than [Nevada] coach [Jay] Norvell, so I’m happy to be here.”
Strong was not heavily recruited out of Vacaville’s Wood High School, with Nevada and Iowa State being the only Division I colleges to offer him a scholarship. Part of the reason is that a knee injury prevented Strong from playing his senior season of high school ball in 2017, making him a mystery to recruiters.
Now Strong is one of the main reasons Nevada is the preseason pick to win the Mountain West Conference title. Strong has the benefit of a top-notch receiving corps, which includes all-conference wide receiver Romeo Doubs, all-conference tight end Cole Turner and wide receiver Elijah Cooks, who missed nearly all of the 2020 season with an injury after a standout 2019 season.
The Wolf Pack’s offensive coordinator is Matt Mumme, the son of Hal Mumme, who invented the Air Raid offense along with Mike Leach.
However, the star is Strong, a likely first-round NFL draft pick who was projected to be the No. 1 overall selection in a recent Sports Illustrated mock draft.
Video of Nevada coach Jay Norvell's Monday press conference followed by Carson Strong's Monday press conference.
“There’s a reason people are talking about that quarterback in the NFL draft,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “There’s a reason everyone is expecting them to win their conference.”
Strong had offseason knee surgery that forced him to miss spring ball and a minor procedure on the same knee in the summer that caused him to miss some early preseason practices. But he says he’s ready to go for the opener.
He will be a handful for Cal’s defense, which prides itself on having a strong secondary.
“There’s three things we look for [in a quarterback],” said Norvell, who spent six years coaching in the NFL. “We look for intelligence, we look for accuracy, and we look for passion. And Carson has all three.
“Very intelligent kid. He can handle volumes of information that we give him.”
Norvell gives him lots of autonomy on the field because he can read defenses and make quick decisions, allowing Strong to audible.
“He runs the whole offense,” Norvell said.
And he is always a threat to beat a defense with the long ball.
“He’s got an incredibly accurate arm for deep balls, and he has a tremendous passion to play,” Norvell said.
Strong threw 27 touchdown passes with just four interceptions last year for Nevada, which went 7-2, including a win over Tulane in the Potato Bowl.
“He had a very good year last year,” Norbell said, [but] I think he should be better. I really do.”
Strong and his teammates have needed to be adaptable during preseason practice.
Because of the poor air quality in the Reno area due to nearby wildfires, Nevada spent the past two weeks practicing at Stanford, and they were scheduled to spend only the first few days this week in Reno before heading to the Bay Area again midweek.
Norvell says the team has practiced at seven different places during preseason workouts, including indoor workouts on a basketball court. The Wolf Pack was slated to work out at an eighth site – Fernley High School – this week before heading to Berkeley.
“I don’t know much about [Fernley],” Strong said, “but I know it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
Strong is more familiar with the Bay Area, and he knows a victory over Cal, which is a slight favorite, will help the Wolf Pack’s national reputation.
“We have a chance to go in there and make a statement, that we can hang with the big boys,” he said. “We’re not afraid of anybody. We’re just looking at this as a real big opportunity for us.”
Cover photo of Carson Strong by David Calvert, USA TODAY Sports
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