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Center stage: Nevada freshman QB Carson Strong has been waiting for this moment

Carson Strong
Carson Strong will take center stage when Nevada hosts Purdue in Friday's season opener. (Kyle Pulek/Nevada athletics)

In the spring of his junior season of high school, Carson Strong took a trip to the Bay Area. He did so on a whim. A couple of friends in his hometown of Vacaville, Calif., were trying out for a seven-on-seven football team based at De La Salle High, the powerhouse program in nearby Concord.

Strong knew he wouldn’t make the team but figured he might as well tag along. Before hitting the field, he had to fill out a questionnaire. It asked how many recruiting stars he had. Strong was honest. He put zero. He had to list his scholarship offers and the colleges interested. He wrote down, “Southern Oregon.” That was it.

Then Strong went to work. Competing against more than a dozen quarterbacks for two spots on the roster, Strong flashed his strong arm and good mobility. He was wowed at how talented the players at the camp were. And when it was over, former NFL star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who co-ran the seven-on-seven team, KT Prep, with De La Salle assistant coach Kenion Training, approached Strong.

“Your only offer is Southern Oregon?” Jones asked Strong after looking at his pre-practice questionnaire.

“No,” Strong said, correcting him. “They’re my only interest. They haven't offered.”

“Well, we think you have Division I potential,” Jones responded. “You made the team.”

Strong and Ben Wooldridge, now the backup at Fresno State, were the two quarterbacks who made the roster. That was the moment Strong, who stood 6-foot-4 with gifted arm talent, truly started to believe. He had already shown he could play the game at the high school level, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,732 yards, 26 touchdowns against four interceptions in 10 games as a junior at Will C. Wood High. But the top level of college football? There hadn’t been many people who had predicted that.

“He was the first guy who really told me I had a shot,” Strong said.

A little more than two years later, Strong is ready to prove Jones-Drew right. He’s ready to show Mountain West rivals he’s a top quarterback in the conference and perhaps more than that. Only a redshirt freshman, he was picked to lead Nevada into battle Friday night against Purdue. He’ll be the first freshman to start the Wolf Pack’s season opener in 21 seasons. Confidence surely won’t be an issue.

“I just want to be known as a winner,” said Strong, still a teenager at 19 years old. “We want to win the Mountain West championship. That’s the one goal for this team. We want to go out there and win every single game. If that’s not your mindset, you shouldn’t be out here.”

A multi-sport star

While college recruiters didn’t lavish Strong with scholarship offers during his high school career, Carson’s father, Chris, knew his son had special talent from an early age.

As soon as Carson could close his fist as a baby, he latched on to a toy basketball. He began taking shots at a Fisher-Price basketball hoop and never really stopped. At age 5, he started playing soccer and scored a goal in his first game – via a header. He was a star baseball pitcher but gave up that sport when he began playing AAU basketball. And, yes, he was pretty good at football, too, begging his father to throw him pass after pass as young Carson fetched balls as if he was a Golden Retriever.

“He was a tight end but really wanted to play quarterback,” Chris said of Carson's early career. “In PeeWee, usually the coach’s son plays quarterback. One of his coaches said, ‘I’m going to give Carson a try at quarterback.’ The coach’s son was playing quarterback, but Carson got the job and he’s loved playing quarterback ever since.”

Strong juggled all his sports until entering high school when he focused on basketball and football, giving preference to neither. He was called up to varsity in basketball as a freshman and eventually set a handful of school records. He made the varsity football team as a sophomore, serving as the backup quarterback. During his junior season, Strong was named the Most Valuable Player of the Monticello Empire League in both basketball and football, a rare feat that might have been a first for the league.

Chris Strong has worked at Will C. Wood High for 29 years, even serving as principal for many years. He’s coached multiple sports and seen the athletes come and go, but his son was different from the rest, as much for his knowledge, passion and determination as his physical talent.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids come through while coaching both basketball and football,” he said. “As a coach, I was able to see Carson had some skills that were unique. As a dad, you have to support your kid but you temper your own enthusiasm. But he just had this special passion for sports. I call it the X-factor.”

Strong's stellar junior season in basketball and football was followed by making the Bay Area seven-on-seven team, which in addition to having Jones-Drew as a coach also had former New England Patriots quarterback Matt Gutierrez, who was Tom Brady’s backup during the team’s 16-0 2007 season.

“He’s the first guy that really got into Carson’s head, ‘If you work at this, you could make all the throws NFL guys are making now,’” Chris Strong said Gutierrez. “That was the end of his junior year. Carson brought that up to me and I said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go for it.’ I was kind of skeptical, to best honest. I thought it might be a money-making thing. It turned out being one of his best experiences.”

Three months after making that seven-on-seven team, Strong got his first (and only) scholarship offer, from nearby Nevada, who believed the long and lanky kid everybody else bypassed had intriguing potential. After an official visit to campus during an AAU basketball tournament in Reno, Strong was sold. He committed to the Wolf Pack and canceled future recruiting camps. He wanted to wear silver and blue, although it appeared as if his profile was about to ascend. The big schools were seemingly going to enter the fray.

Season-ending surgery

Less than one month after committing to Nevada, Strong was wheeled into an operating room. During that basketball tournament in Reno, he felt discomfort in his right knee. A doctor’s appointment was scheduled and following multiple visits, an OCD lesion was revealed. That's a condition in which a piece of bone in your joint dies due to lack of blood. Surgery was the only option.

After working his whole life to have a stellar senior season, Strong would be forced to watch it all from the sidelines. Nevada stuck with him, saying his scholarship was safe, but that was little solace.

“It was tough,” Strong said. "I couldn’t even jog for 8 months."

He got a part-time job and helped coach the freshmen quarterbacks at Will C. Wood, but instead of being center stage he fell to the background, the big man on campus not getting his crowning moment.

“It was hard,” Chris Strong said. “It was really, really hard. I think Carson learned sports is fleeting and you have to prepare for a life without sports because at any time that can be taken away from you. He was able to see, ‘You have to have a backup plan because you never know.’ He learned he was more than just an athlete. That was really the first time we talked about what life looks like after sports. You’d never wish that on anybody, especially somebody like Carson whose whole life had been focused on getting better so he could thrive in his senior season. But I was proud of how he handled it.”

There were multiple silver linings. Not only did Strong realize he had to be a student-athlete rather than an athlete-student (he always got good grades, anyway), but his injury allowed him to graduate high school a semester early – he didn’t have to stay enrolled for the spring semester so he could play basketball – which meant he could join Nevada in January 2017 and get a head start on the playbook.

With senior Ty Gangi cemented as the starter last season, Strong used his redshirt season, appearing in just one series in a romp over Portland State in the first game. That set up a four-player competition heading into 2019. Strong was clearly talented but perhaps a longshot to win the job. Griffin Dahn, a junior, transferred during spring camp. Cristian Solano, a fifth-year senior, broke his hand in the second fall camp practice. That left Strong and Malik Henry, the Florida State transfer who suffered a mild hamstring strain halfway through camp.

Strong was the last man standing, but head coach Jay Norvell has made it clear that’s not why he won the job. It probably would have been his anyway as the freshman checked every box required to earn the starting gig as he excelled in winter conditioning, spring camp, summer workouts and fall scrimmages.

“We built our whole program on competition and Carson has been extremely competitive in practice and he’s really executed and played well,” Norvell said. “He’s stepped up to the challenges in practice. We do our best as coaches to try and prepare guys for games by what we do in practice. If Carson continues to do what he’s done in practice, he should have success in the games.”

Along the way, Strong’s work ethic stood out, whether it was bugging Matt Mumme, the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, to watch film. Or joining the wide receiver meetings after the quarterback meetings wrap up. Or dragging tackling dummies onto the practice field before the sun rises so he can pelt them with passes, which was his routine last season even though he was redshirting.

“There was one day when I came really early in the morning (around 5 a.m.) before practice and he was throwing it into the net and then I had a late class and I got out at 7:30, 7:45, 8 o’clock at night and walked to the locker room to get my stuff and I hear somebody on the field throwing into the net again, and it’s him,” senior captain Kaleb Fossum said. “I told him, ‘You might throw your arm out,’ and he said, ‘No, I got it. I have to get my work in.’ It just shows what kind of guy he is. His work ethic is second-to-none.”

A challenging start

The last time Nevada started a freshman quarterback in its season opener was 1998 when Mo Jones started at Oregon State. Jones was pulled in the second half and moved to receiver for the team's second game.

Odds are Strong will have a much different career. The Wolf Pack hasn’t had this advanced a pure passer at this age in more than a decade. And while he might not be a dual-threat quarterback, Strong is mobile enough to get around. Chris Ault, the founding father of modern Nevada football and a regular at practice, has been impressed by the teenager. He’ll be tested early with games against Purdue and Oregon, the first back-to-back contests versus Power 5 teams to open a season for Nevada since 2007.

“I just have a drive that I want to be great,” Strong said. “I just want to go out there and win, and I’m going to give everything I have every single day to do that. That’s what ‘Nevada Grit’ is all about, showing up every single day and giving everything you have to your team.”

Chris Strong has seen that since his son was a little kid, to beg Carson to let him take a break. Nevada has had some wonderful four-year starters at quarterback over the years, most recently Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo, the only two players in FBS history with at least 9,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in their careers. Strong could be the next in line to lead the team for four years.

“It’s a little unexpected," Chris Strong admitted. "I remember when Coach Mumme and I were in his office with Carson (on his recruiting visit) and he put the quarterbacks' names on the wall and he was honest with us and said, ‘You know what? You’re lucky if you get one year as the guy. Any more than that year is icing on the cake.’ That kind of stuck with me. I remind Carson of that, too. I’ve been to the practices. That quarterback room is talented. There’s constant competition at that level regardless of whether you’re the starter or the third-string guy. The idea is you have to go in there and show some level of humility and work hard and do all of the extra things."

That shouldn't be an issue for Strong, who has drawn rave reviews from his coaches and staff, the one point of criticism being he can get too emotional at times. A vocal leader, Strong had high peaks and low valleys when he first stepped on campus. The Wolf Pack wants him to be excitable but a little more flat-lined.

“I love a competitive dude with a chip on your shoulder and screw-you attitude,” Fossum said. “The reason I told him beforehand he needed to work on his emotion is because you can let your emotions get the best of you. I think in the past he would dwell on a bad play. Our big word for him has been ‘body language,’ and he’s completely fixed that. All eyes are on you when you’re the quarterback, so if he throws a bad ball it’s on to the next play. He’s done a better job of that, and I love the fiery attitude. When he throws a touchdown pass and is fired up, you can feel the vibe and it’s contagious.”

When Norvell told Strong two weekends before the season opener he had won the starting job, he treated it like the beginning of something special rather than the end of the competition. It’s a message Strong didn’t necessarily need to hear because as confident as he is, he has a healthy dose of humility, too.

“What I want you to understand is all of the hard work put in up to this point, this is just the beginning,” Norvell said. “Every day is an opportunity to prove yourself. I have a huge respect for the job you have to do on the field on Saturdays, and I promise you nobody is going to work harder for you than Coach Mumme and myself in putting you in position to make plays.”

Strong has been ready for this moment for years. With his senior season of high school ripped away due to injury, he has been waiting to get on the field again. And when he steps on it Friday night against Purdue, he’ll not only be leading Nevada's offense but an entire football team as the face of a program looking to win back the support of the community.

“I’m already nervous,” Chris Strong said when asked what he’ll be feeling when his son takes the field.

“I’ll just be proud,” he added before choking back tears. “I think I'll sit there and take a minute just to enjoy that moment in time. I won’t think about how things will shake out in the future. Just that one moment in time. This is a huge passion of his since he was a baby, and I can’t wait to see him live in that moment in time. You have to live in the moment. My daughter always tells me that. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about the past. Just live in that moment in time. I’ll be very proud of him.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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