July 3, 2019

Blossoming Into Star Receiver for PU Football, Carlson Now Aiming to Make Cleveland Browns

ON TO CLEVELAND: Stephen Carlson, right, fights past a Penn defender in action last fall during his senior season for the Princeton University football team. Star receiver Carlson made 51 receptions for 683 yards and five touchdowns in 2018 to help Princeton go 10-0, the program’s first perfect season since 1964. In late April, Carlson signed free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL and is looking forward to starting training camp later this month. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Stephen Carlson seemingly came out of nowhere to emerge as a star receiver for the Princeton University football team in 2017.

After having played JV as a freshman in 2015 and making 11 catches on varsity the next fall, Carlson grabbed six receptions for 94 yards and three touchdowns in Princeton’s 27-17 win over San Diego in the 2017 season opener.

While Carlson didn’t see himself making such a splash, he was ready to assume a leading role for the Tigers.

“I knew I could play but I wasn’t expecting to come in with that big of a start,” said Carlson, a 6’4, 230-pound native of Jamestown, N.Y.

“I was a little bit surprised with the stats. I realized that was a product of everything I had been doing the years before and the summer before. I really think it was inevitable with the way I felt about the season and the work we put in.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace sensed that Carlson could blossom into something special.

“Guys develop at different times, just like everybody starts walking at different times,” said Surace.

“For Steve, the jump was a little steep for him as a freshman and even as a sophomore. In his offseason before his spring ball in his sophomore year, he made this big jump in the weight room. We couldn’t cover him in practices and he just kept getting better and better.”

Carlson kept getting better in his junior season, ending up with 71 receptions for 935 yards and 11 touchdowns as he earned second-team All-Ivy League honors. Last fall, he made 51 receptions for 683 yards and five touchdowns to help Princeton go 10-0, the program’s first perfect season since 1964. In late April, Carlson signed free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL and is looking forward to starting training camp later this month.

In reflecting on his road to the Browns, Carlson didn’t see the NFL as a possibility until after his breakout 2017 season.

“Initially coach Surace put me on to it after my junior year,” said Carlson.

“I had a good season, I had the size, I had the stats. It wasn’t like anything serious, it was just knowing you might be one of the guys. I was planning as I always had the last couple of years, just doing the most I could, working the hardest I could and just seeing what was going to happen my senior year. If it turned out to be a good season and I felt good, then I would push through to the next level. If something else happened, maybe I would pursue it.”

Last fall turned out very well as the Tigers produced a season for the ages, producing perfection for the first time since the 1964 Tigers went 9-0. While the wins were sweet, Carlson’s most vivid memories of that special fall will center on the bonds with his teammates.

“I think about the people we had around, like my friends group and all the guys on the team and how close we were,” said Carlson, who made second-team All-Ivy last fall for the
second straight season.

“Obviously we were together a lot for practices and meetings, but it was how much we hung out together outside of the game. It was just having the closeness and the trust that the guy right next to me is working just as hard as me. That put a sense of confidence in me. It also made us trust each other and rely on the person next to you, knowing that they are putting just as much into it and they are caring just as much as I am. It makes you feel good and it makes you feel confident in what you need to go out and do.”

With the NFL on his radar, Carlson put in a lot of work, training hard with Princeton football strength coach Mike Tufo, starting a week after the Tigers wrapped up their season.

“I remember doing all of the combine drills very early and the first couple of times I was doing them, it felt so awkward, just learning the technique,” recalled Carlson, who realized by that point that the pro teams were looking at him as a tight end.

“But because I started doing that stuff so early, by the time pro day came around, it felt natural. It was put as much strength on as I could, that was another thing for me. I was trying to put on a little bit of weight because I came out of the season a little under 225 and I was trying to get to 240 by pro day.”

At the Princeton pro day in late March, Carlson posted some good numbers,  weighing in at 240, running a 4.70 40-yard dash, pumping out 18 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds with a broad jump of 10’3 and a vertical jump of 32’ 1/2.

While hoping to get selected in the NFL draft, Carlson found a good fit with the Browns as he quickly inked a deal with them.

“I thought it was a possibility that maybe I would get chosen in the last round or two but I was pretty much expecting to not get drafted,” said Carlson.

“The Browns had called me a couple of times before the draft and had expressed their interest and how they liked me as a player and how I would fit in It is close to my home town and Seth DeValve (former Princeton star) being there was a big plus. I knew he could help me out.”

Surace wasn’t surprised that Carlson ended up with the Browns.

“I think that the best fit is the team that values you the most and from day one, they valued him the most,” said Surace, who has two other players from the 2018 squad join NFL teams as John Lovett signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and Jesper Horsted signed with the Chicago Bears.

“It is funny, some guys liked John, some guys liked Jesper, and some guys like Steve.”

Making his Browns debut at the rookie minicamp held shortly after the draft, Carlson believes he showed his value.

“It was a little nerve-wracking and intimidating at first, going from a smaller school and not having the highest interest coming in,” said Carlson.

“Once I strapped on the helmet and starting running routes, I felt I was just as good or better than anybody out there. I calmed my nerves and figured out all the mental stuff of the game.”

Former Princeton star DeValve has been a calming influence on Carlson.

“When I was first learning the playbook, I was texting him questions and he was helping me out,” said Carlson.

“Even before that, when I was trying to put on some weight, I asked him what did you do to put on weight. He is helping me, giving me advice, making sure I am keeping my head up, and on the right track.”

Taking the field at the organized team activities (OTAs) with such Cleveland stars as quarterback Baker Mayfield and superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Carlson kept his head up.

“It is fun experience, I have enjoyed every second of it so far,” said Carlson.

“It was another nerve-wracking kind of thing. Once I got through rookie minicamp, I saw I can hang with the rookies but the vets have been here for so long. We will see how that goes. I was very pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and nice overall all the veterans have been. When you are on the field, nobody cares who the big name guys are, if you are expected to do something, you have to go do it.”

So far, Carlson has been doing well with the transition to tight end. “I am pretty good with all of the pass game stuff; some of the run blocking stuff is completely new to me,” said Carlson. “In the past four weeks, that is something I have had to focus on a lot, just the terminology and footwork and all the interior blocking.”

In Surace’s view, Carlson can be a weapon at tight end on the NFL level.

“He was a mismatch with us; we could put him at tight end and he was a mismatch on safeties,” said Surace.

“One team had a shorter corner and we could put him outside and he would body guys up and go get it. That is not going to change, there are going to be 5’9 corners and he is still going to have a huge size advantage. He is going to go up against some safeties that are really run stopper types; that is part of his game. We are seeing it right now. They just tweeted something else out from Cleveland the other day, the offensive coordinator was saying throw the ball to Carlson.”

With the Browns starting training camp on July 25 in Berea, Ohio, Carlson is determined to take advantage of his chance to make the NFL.

“Training camp just comes down to making plays consistently and knowing the
playbook,” said Carlson.

“Once I am confident in what to do, that is when I feel the best. I will run the best route or have the best block, knowing what to do and how the defense is going to look. It is showing my best ability, not being nervous, and not holding anything back. It is a big opportunity.”