CSU Rams QB Clay Millen giving coach Jay Norvell reasons to smile

FORT COLLINS — News flash: There’s nothing funny about getting thrown on your back five or six times per game, right? It’s a lot easier for Clay Millen to smile in the huddle when his head isn’t on a stinking swivel.

“Yeah, for sure,” the CSU Rams sophomore quarterback said earlier this month. “I’m definitely enjoying it a lot more than last year.

“I think that I took it a little bit too seriously to start out. You know, we weren’t winning games. And it wasn’t fun. And I think that I was a little too hard on myself almost.

“But I think this year, I’m just enjoying myself. I’m having fun — having fun with my teammates.”

How’d you get there?

Bowling? Wordle? Yahtzee?

“Just (being) more outgoing, (being) more goofy,” Millen replied. “Don’t be just so tense and uptight. Just go talk to my guys and enjoy it, hang out with them.”

Even a world of post-COVID collegiate eligibility, Mountain West time goes by awfully quickly. Although last September’s 0-4 start, and the hammering Millen took over his first month as a Rams signal-caller, sometimes felt as if it might never end.

“I learned a lot last year,” said Millen, who rallied to finish his freshman campaign with 10 touchdown passes and six picks in 10 games. “I could write, I feel like, a book (about) everything I learned last year.

“I think that I learned a lot about leadership too. I think that learning about losing — obviously I didn’t lose a ton in high school, (or while) growing up with football — so I think that was something that I had to learn about, taking those hard losses and taking them and using them in a good way.

“I think that there’s a lot of stuff, when I go watch film, (it’s) like, ‘Oh, look at last year …’ (there) was a lot of stuff I can learn from and I take (for) this year, kind of use it as motivation. So I’m really excited about that.”

Rams coach Jay Norvell, who hasn’t shied away from comparing Millen to his former QB at Nevada, Carson Strong, is fairly geeked up, too.

“(We’ve seen Millen’s) confidence and his personality starting to come through,” Norvell noted. “And, you know, sometimes when you’re young, your personality doesn’t show. He’s a different guy that way now. You could feel his leadership and his personality.

“I relate (his growth) a lot to Carson’s. (In) Carson’s first year, he was like Clay. The second year, he really blossomed and started taking advantage of his playmakers. So I just think Clay has huge upside. The improvement of the line and the improvement of the receivers are going to show a big improvement in his play as well.”

Strong’s stats as a freshman and first-time QB1 with Norvell’s Wolf Pack aren’t a far cry from Millen’s, sacks aside (Nevada gave up 33 as a team in ’19; the Rams allowed a whopping 59 last year).

The 6-foot-4 Strong threw for 11 scores against seven interceptions four years ago while completing 63.4% of this throws for a 121.8 passing rating. In his debut season, Millen posted a 10-7 ratio while completing 72.2% of his attempts for a 149.8 rating.

But Strong’s second year as a starter saw progression all-around: From 11 touchdowns thrown to 27, a drop in picks from seven to four, a completion percentage of 70.1 and a bump in passer rating by 38.8 points, to 160.6.

Perspective: If Millen leaps by the same margin this fall, a 188.6 passer rating would rank as the 13th-best in all of FBS since 1956. And wouldn’t be far behind the 191.8 number that some guy named Russell Wilson — you might’ve heard of him — posted with Wisconsin in 2011.

“Just (his) passion for the game — he makes sure everybody is alive, makes sure nobody’s dead,” wideout Tory Horton said when asked about Millen. “(Walking) to the huddle, he might crack a couple jokes before we go out there and break. He makes sure everybody knows what they’re doing.

“He may ask, ‘Is everyone good on the roster,’ even though he doesn’t need to. But it’s just something that we like to hear from our quarterback. (Millen) just wants to make sure that everybody is dialed in.”

If the Rams can dial up at least two wins from their first four matchups (home games vs. Washington State and Utah Tech; visits to rival CU and Middle Tennessee), Millen just might be able to put some of the ghosts that haunted him last September to rest. For good.

“He’s a real excitable guy,” Norvell said. “It took him four or five games just to get him to eat before games. I mean, he (was) just a nervous wreck. And, you know, it’s like anything else: The second time around, you’re more comfortable. And he’s definitely more comfortable this year.”

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