The Alexandria football team’s offense demands a lot from its quarterbacks.

At their best, the Cardinals’ signal callers are able to read a defense and see what the opponent is giving them before reacting accordingly with the run or the pass. The quarterbacks are groomed by running the same system through the lower levels of competition, but it’s a different feeling being under the bright lights on Friday night for the first time instead of playing in front of primarily family members during a freshman or sophomore game.

Matthew Carlsen saw that first hand as a junior last season in his first year starting varsity at quarterback. On Monday, Carlsen opened up fall practices with a bit of a different feeling with a year under his belt and coming into camp as a senior captain.

“I feel a lot more calm and confident,” Carlsen said. “I know what it’s going to be like. I was kind of clueless last year. I didn’t know how it would feel and the nerves and stuff like that.”

Carlsen said he was comfortable with the ins and outs of the offensive system from the very beginning last year. It’s those feelings of being on that bigger stage with a game that is moving a lot faster that one just can’t replicate in practice.

“I felt pretty comfortable, except for nerves almost every game,” Carlsen said.

It took a while, but head coach Mike Empting saw a player who got better and better as the season progressed.

Carlsen’s best game came in the regular-season finale when the Cardinals ran over Moorhead by a 47-22 final. It was the most points Alexandria scored all season, and Carlsen was an efficient 17-of-23 passing. He finished with 329 yards and four touchdowns.

After the season, Carlsen had done enough to earn all-district honors. Perhaps even more notably, he was voted by his teammates as Alexandria’s MVP.

“I think that’s a couple things,” Empting said. “One is leadership. Another thing is he’s a pretty cool customer. He doesn’t get rattled. When you look at that quarterback spot, if you look at all the positions on the field, that was one where if he got hurt we were pretty young behind him.

“I think there were a lot of things that factored into (him winning MVP). He grew quite a bit from the beginning of the season to the end. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the guys would have voted him most improved as well.”

Carlsen’s final numbers from 2018 are a base to build off of. He completed 54.6 percent of his passes (160-of-293) for 1,711 yards and 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions.

Carlsen now has most of his entire team back around him to help make things easier. An offensive line that was really inexperienced last season has games under their belt with Ethan Engelbrecht, Riley Covel, Nick Langner, Isaac Siegel and Connor Lay all returning.

Carlsen's top-five receivers by receptions in Cody Branson, Andrew Revering, Nolan Morical, Kristen Hoskins and Blake Hoelscher are back, and Morical will line up beside him in the backfield again after rushing for 714 yards on 139 carries. That’s a lot of speed for Carlsen to get the ball to.

“Teams are going to have to game plan to keep Kristen contained, to keep Nolan contained,” Empting said. “They’re going to have to have a plan for Cody to keep these guys from changing a game. That’s huge, and Matthew coming back with a year of experience, stronger and faster than he was last year. I just think we’re going to have all those pieces in place, and in our defensive backfield as well.”

There are tools to work with around Carlsen. Now it’s a matter of putting it all together as he tries to help this offense go to another level this fall.

“I think the biggest thing is the way he disperses the ball,” Empting said. “Decision making has got to be solid. Just demonstrating that arm strength. He’s got a lot of those intangibles that’s going to make him strong -- leadership, calm under pressure, those types of things. The next step for him is the decision making piece and putting the ball where it needs to be.”