Carson Strong is no longer the Wolf Pack's baby-faced quarterback. All you must do to understand that is take one look at his actual face, which now adorns a goatee.
"I hit puberty over quarantine," Strong said with a laugh during this week's Wolf Pack All Access. "I finally got some facial hair to grow in. I'm trying to look like a vet this year. I'm not that freshman kid anymore."
While Strong joked about his new look, he does feel like a new quarterback, too, as he enters his sophomore season. Last year, Strong had to beat out Cristian Solano and Malik Henry to win Nevada's starting quarterback position, which he did out of camp before an up-and-down rookie year that saw him benched for two games midway through the year. Entering this season, Strong is the Wolf Pack's undoubted starter, the face of the franchise for the next three seasons.
"It's been a lot different," Strong said. "I've been trying to take more of a leadership role this year, trying to use my voice and just trying to motivate guys to get the best out of them every single day. Some of the younger guys, we have a lot of young receivers who will make a great play and then maybe take off the next couple. It's just my job to push them and try to get the most out of them on every rep. I have the confidence that I know I'm the guy and I know if I throw a pick I'm not going to get taken out. All the little things you might overthink when you have guys looking behind you. It's a lot different than last year, and we're really excited to go out there and play games."
As a freshman, Strong completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,335 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 starts. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder from Vacaville, Calif., led Nevada to wins over a Power 5 team (Purdue) and Top 25 team (San Diego State) for only the second time in a single season in program history (2010 was the other year). But the season ended on a sour note with Nevada losing the Fremont Cannon to UNLV in the regular-season finale before losing to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Strong ended the season playing his best football, setting a program record for passing yards in the bowl loss, and said the ups and downs of the season, which included a benching, in part to rest an injured collarbone, made his better.
"I learned a lot," Strong said. "I learned from my experience playing and also my experience when I was watching when I wasn't starting. You see things differently when you're not playing after you were playing and get taken out. I just saw things I knew I could do better, and when my time came again I knew I'd be ready. Last year was a lot of ups and downs and you have to stay as level as you can and play through all that adversity, and this year we're prepared to have a great team and a great season."
After Nevada scored only 21.3 points per game last season, its lowest total since 2000, there's optimism the Wolf Pack offense will take a big step forward in 2020 thanks to a strong cast of returning starters, including the team's two best receivers, two best running backs, four starters on the offensive line and Strong himself.
"I really think it's the experience," Strong said of why Nevada will be improved. "We have a lot of guys coming back on offense that made a lot of plays last year, and we've got a lot of guys coming back on defense who made a lot of plays. You can't teach experience. It's something you have to have. When you get it, it helps you more than anything else when you can actually get out there and play in games and get live reps. That's how you really get better. We have a lot of guys who have played in big moments and know what it takes to win. Now that we're all coming together with one team with a lot of experience, we can do a lot of damage in the Mountain West."
Strong raved about his pass-catching targets, which include Elijah Cooks (76/926/8 last season) and Romeo Doubs (44/649/4 last season) as well as some talented young receivers. Strong said the playmakers surrounding him will make his job easier, and he's more prepared to spread the ball around the field rather than focus on his top targets.
"Last year, a lot of times I struggled with trying to pick a receiver before the play and thinking, 'OK, I'm going to throw it to him,' and I would just throw it to him no matter what, live or die with it," Strong said. "This year, with all the talent spread across the board, it's just my job to hit the open guy. It's as simple as that. Just drop back, fine whoever the open guy is and throw it to that one and let them make plays with it."
Strong said he's thankful to play this season after the Mountain West Board of Directors initially voted to delay the season to the spring due to COVID-19. But the conference reversed course a month later, and Nevada will embark on an eight-game conference-only schedule starting Oct. 24 with a home game against Wyoming. The Wolf Pack was picked in the MW preseason poll to finish second in the six-team West Division behind San Diego State.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people, I think," Strong said. "We have a great team, offense, defense, special teams. This is my third season being here, and I believe this is the best team top to bottom we've had. It's going to be exciting to watch."
Nevada was able to practice, but only in limited fashion, during the summer and following the MW's initial decision to push the season to the spring. That opened some free time for Strong, who found another sport to keep him busy during the pandemic, that being golf. Strong admitted he's not a great golfer ("terrible" is how he described his game). He's broken 100 only once and his most pars in a round is four. Strong hits the ball far and straight, "but once I start getting close to that pin it just goes downhill for me."
"I'm a lot more confident in my abilities to play quarterback than I am swinging a golf club," Strong joked.
And that's all the Wolf Pack will ask of him this season.
You can watch Strong's full Wolf Pack All Access video below.