It was the first play of the fourth quarter in the FCS National Championship Game, third-and-23 from just over midfield, with North Dakota State leading by eight points.
NDSU QB Trey Lance saw all four receivers and the running back leaking into the flat were covered. He quickly decided to tuck the ball and try to get into field-goal range to make it a two-score game. Basically, just avoid a mistake and get as much yardage as he could.
Turned out, he could get all of it.
The defensive tackle lunging at Lance’s ankles had no shot. Nor did the safety who soon realized he’d taken the wrong angle. And after two key blocks from his receivers downfield, Lance was into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown that proved to be the insurance score the Bison needed to secure the 28-20 win over James Madison and a national title.
Lance later learned the GPS tracker he was wearing clocked him at 21.54 mph on that run, his fastest speed of the season. It would have ranked 12th in the NFL last season among ball-carriers and tops among quarterbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. It’s all the more impressive considering he was running diagonally across the field and toward the sideline while looking for the right time to turn the corner.
It wasn’t just a straight sprint to the end zone, which could only mean one thing.
“That I’ve got more in the tank for you,” Lance said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
The start of the 2021 NFL Draft (April 29-May 1) is a little over a month away, and Lance is expected to be selected in Round 1. He would become just the third FCS player to crack the top 32 selections in the last decade and only the second quarterback to do so, joining fellow former Bison Carson Wentz.
Lance’s pro day is set for Friday in Fargo, North Dakota, where a large NFL coaching and scouting contingent will gather to see him throw. They will not see him run or do agility drills, however, as he and his representatives at CAA decided to let the tape tell the story of Lance’s legs.
With Lance’s college teammates currently going through an unprecedented spring season brought on by COVID-19-related postponement from the fall, Lance has been working with unfamiliar targets in advance of his pro day, so he and his reps decided to focus on that part of the preparation while deemphasizing the speed and agility aspects. Teams have told Lance’s camp they’re more interested in seeing him throw, especially since several quarterbacks in recent years (including Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson) opted not to run the 40-yard dash, either.
Years ago, such a decision would’ve left evaluators to wonder whether Lance was as fast as he looked on film or whether he was merely blowing past a bunch of players who won’t be making the jump to the NFL. While Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were making plays against ACC and Big Ten competition, Lance was working against Missouri Valley defenses.
But modern technology can level the playing field. Lance’s run against JMU, as well as his three other games with 20-mph-plus clockings, show evaluators he can flat out fly.
“I really like the GPS. I think it makes sense,” Lance said. “I’m not the person who makes the ultimate decisions, but it makes sense to have guys’ real speed instead of a 40. I know the 40 has been part of the combine and draft process for as long as anybody can remember so I understand that as well.
“But (the GPS) tells a lot for sure.”
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah agrees.
“We’re about 2-3 years away from personnel departments not caring about 40 times. The game GPS data is going to replace it,” Jeremiah wrote in a recent tweet. “Who cares what he ran in the 40, I know exactly how fast he ran in game conditions & I have 5 years of data for context.”
However, due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, Lance has only slightly more than one year of data.
The Marshall, Minnesota, native won the Bison’s starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and went on to throw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns to zero interceptions while running for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs, earning him the Walter Payton Award (most outstanding FCS offensive player) and Jerry Rice Award (most outstanding FCS freshman).
In last fall’s only game for NDSU, Lance finally threw his first interception but had two passing touchdowns and two more on the ground to lead a fourth-quarter comeback victory over Central Arkansas.
In addition to the questions about competition, Lance realizes there are concerns with his starting just 17 games in college. Teams have raised that issue in their virtual meetings with Lance and he’s countered by noting the Bison double rep their practices, meaning two sets of teams are working at one time. For Lance, that meant quality reps against his teammates as a freshman instead of just standing around and watching the starters.
“Obviously, practice reps and game reps are different,” Lance said. “But your first day on campus, your first practice, you’re getting the same reps as the redshirt senior starting quarterback. You’re always in there. From a quarterback standpoint, that’s one of the most important things, at least for me, was you have to go out there and make those mistakes because that’s how you learn from it.”
Another point Lance and his coaches have stressed — and one that talent evaluators around the NFL have noted as well — is the pro-style offense North Dakota State runs.
Bison quarterbacks take snaps under center, audible at the line, change protections and must always be aware of where defensive pressure is coming from. They’re also asked to read the entire field in their pass-play progressions. Many quarterbacks entering the draft process were not asked to do such things in college, and those are knocks against them.
Even being able to call a play at the start of training camp will be an edge for Lance.
“He’s been in a huddle. That’s important,” said Randy Hedberg, the Bison’s associate head coach, passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “In our program, we’re not looking over at the sideline at those funky signs, which I have no idea what they even mean.
“Our quarterbacks are in the huddle, looking at the other 10 guys. Those guys had to believe in Trey, and they did.”
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NFL teams believed in Wentz, too. None more so than the Eagles in 2016 when they traded up to No. 2 overall to take him.
Wentz’s career path has taken a few turns since then, and the Colts believe he’s ready for a reset after agreeing to a deal for him last month. But don’t forget how quickly Wentz adjusted to life in the NFL, which caught even the Eagles by surprise.
Following a limited training camp and preseason due to a rib injury, Wentz jumped over veteran Chase Daniel to grab Sam Bradford’s old job after the Eagles dealt Bradford to the Vikings just before final roster cuts. The team scrapped the plan to ease Wentz into life at the NFL level because he showed them he was ready.
Three starts into his career, Wentz had thrown for 769 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Eagles were undefeated. Wentz’s targets were marveling at his ability to see the entire field. Things got a little bumpier for Wentz and the Eagles the rest of the season as defenses adjusted a bit, but by the next season, Wentz was an MVP candidate.
“Him talking about that, just his confidence, we’re a lot alike in that way as far as believing in ourselves,” Lance said. “Having those conversations with him has been really cool. He’s a great person and mentor for me. For him to play as early as he did and as well as he did is really encouraging for me.
“I believe in myself regardless. At the same time, to other people, that proves a lot.”
None of this is to say Lance and Wentz are the same player because they came from the same school. (Jeremiah compared Lance to Andrew Luck after evaluating his 2019 tape.)
However, it’s become clear to many NFL evaluators that North Dakota State isn’t your typical FCS program. The team has a fervent fan base, routinely defeats FBS teams (Oregon was on the schedule this past year, which was slated as an excellent measuring stick for Lance until the game got canceled) and has to deal with the perennial pressure of being a national title contender.
It also runs offensive concepts that have made their way to the NFL. In fact, early in his Eagles career, Wentz called NDSU to ask for film cutups of some quick-game passes he’d thrown in his time there. The Eagles’ offense was running a similar style and Wentz suggested incorporating some route combinations he’d already mastered.
And if nothing else, Lance has a willing mentor who has now experienced the business side of the NFL.
“I’ve told him to just keep being himself and not let any of the extra stresses from any of it affect him,” Wentz wrote in an email. “Just play ball and be you — and he’s done that!”
Wentz is a Lance fan, and not just because of their NDSU connection.
“He seems like a great kid who’s definitely got a good head on his shoulders. He definitely appears to be a great leader, a great guy and a very talented quarterback,” Wentz wrote. “Obviously, he is extremely athletic and can win from in and out of the pocket and I definitely think that will help him with the transition.
“I’m excited to see what his future holds and look forward to competing against him very soon!”
Lance is eager to compete with Wentz and other NFL quarterbacks. Talk to anyone who’s been around him the past few years and they’ll bring up his leadership and competitiveness.
Anthony Hobgood, a performance manager at EXOS in Gulf Breeze, Florida, worked with Lance and a bunch of other NFL hopefuls this winter. Hobgood knew early in the process Lance was probably going to skip his running and agility drills at his pro day, so he limited Lance’s work in training. Once he got the quality rep he wanted to see, Hobgood pulled the reins.
One day, Lance performed a three-cone drill Hobgood timed at 7.00 seconds (faster than Justin Herbert’s 7.06, which was the best of any quarterback at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine). A position player then ran in the 6.9s. Lance wanted to beat that mark.
“Take off your cleats,” Hobgood told Lance. “You’re done.”
There were many moments like that where Hobgood had to protect Lance from himself. But Hobgood also notes the results were there as well, with Lance’s best vertical jump coming in at 39.5 inches, just a half inch shy of the all-time combine record for quarterbacks.
Hobgood said he consistently clocked Lance in the mid-4.5s during the 40-yard dash and at 1.99 seconds in the “flying” 40, which clocks the last 20 yards of a run after a player reaches top speed.
“His top-end speed was consistent with one of our receivers and faster than one of our cornerbacks,” Hobgood said. “If he ran at the combine in the receiver group, he would put up comparable times.”
Said Lance, “My top-end speed is definitely something that impressed people. I don’t think the guys there I was with knew I could go like that.”
They would have if they’d watched his college tape. The 30 carries for 166 yards in the FCS National Championship game showed his speed.
However, Lance is more than just a running quarterback. In fact, Hedberg notes the Bison coaching staff introduced more full-field passing concepts into the offensive scheme over the past three years. That means Lance was often asked to go through deeper progressions than Wentz was tasked with during his college career.
Lance also doesn’t always use his legs to run for yardage. He runs to pass, if possible.
Take his 73-yard touchdown throw against Montana State in 2019, for example. Lance looked left at the snap and decided not to throw a quick-game concept because his targets were covered. He then scrambled left to buy time for tight end Ben Ellefson to work up the field. Ellefson was still covered and a defender started advancing on Lance, so Lance escaped to the right and found receiver Dimitri Williams wide open up the right sideline.
“He wants to throw the ball down the field. He keeps eyes up to see what the defense is doing while he’s moving,” Hedberg said. “He throws the ball on the run extremely well, both to the right and left, going both directions. He’s extremely athletic.
“That’s the way the NFL is going with quarterbacks. They want somebody who can escape pressure and not be a statue back there, and that’s what we want in our offense, too.”
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NFL teams also want a quarterback with presence. By all accounts, Lance has it. He commands a room. Hobgood says Lance was always early for training and almost always took the first rep, which Hobgood appreciated because Lance would show the other players the proper form.
The problem for Lance is COVID-19 protocols have prevented him from meeting with teams the way players usually do. He can’t command a room if he’s not allowed to enter it.
Lance has tried to show his enthusiasm during virtual meetings with teams, but there’s only so much he can do in that setup. That’s why Friday’s pro day will be big. It’s his first chance this offseason to really wow teams with his presence.
“It’s hard not to be able to shake people’s hands and to look them in the eye, and sitting at the computer for as long as we have is definitely different,” Lance said. “But at the same time, it’s been a really smooth process.”
That process is almost complete, with Lance’s best chance to make a statement to teams with his arm, athleticism and command of his workout just days away.
“He has it,” Hedberg said. He then repeated that statement and paused for effect: “Has. It. He’s a great teammate. You can ask anybody on the team in ’19, from the first guy to the last guy, he treated them the same way. He treated them with respect.
“That’s what a franchise is going to get — a guy that can be the face. There’s no question he can be that for a team.”
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