All eyes on Fargo: How NDSU's Trey Lance became a top NFL prospect

Pete Thamel
·18 mins read

With North Dakota State’s FCS-record 37-game winning streak, a run of capturing eight of the past nine national titles and six straight victories against FBS opponents since 2010, there aren’t many firsts emerging out of the most dominant program in all of college football.

Then along comes Saturday, when the combination of COVID-19, a postponed conference season and some creative scheduling have the eyes of the football world gazing upon Fargo, North Dakota, for an unprecedented spectacle. Three-time defending national champion NDSU plays a lone fall game on Saturday against Central Arkansas, an event that has 26 NFL scouts from 20 franchises heading to Fargo.

The main attraction will be redshirt sophomore quarterback Trey Lance, who NFL brass is expecting will play this lone game before skipping to the NFL, where he’s a projected top-10 pick in the 2021 draft. At a place where the last two quarterbacks have been the No. 2 overall pick (Carson Wentz) and the winningest quarterback in FCS history (Easton Stick), Lance has cut an even more compelling profile.

In Lance’s lone season as a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2019, he led NDSU to a 16-0 record, the FCS national championship and threw 28 touchdowns with no interceptions. He crafted as close to a perfect statistical season as a quarterback can cobble together, and NFL personnel are scrambling to UCA-NDSU (ESPN Plus) at LSU-Alabama levels in anticipation of this being Lance’s final college start.

He has left the evaluators potentially asking themselves an unusual question: How do you judge a near-flawless prospect against imperfect opposition? Lance is a game away from potentially finishing his career undefeated and without an interception, which is Joe Burrow-level statistical insanity.

In the minds of scouts, Lance is grouped with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields as the elite quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. Lance, a 6-foot-4 and 226-pound dual threat with Deshaun Watson-like skills, could end up leaping Fields in the draft.

“He’s the best player in the Midwest this year,” said an NFL area scout, whose region includes Ohio. “He has a high ceiling as far as being a top-five quarterback in the NFL.”

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is one of the top NFL prospects for next year's draft. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is one of the top NFL prospects for next year's draft. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

While the world has perceived this as a showcase game for Lance, he has conscientiously deflected that notion. He told Yahoo Sports he has made no decisions about the NFL and is in no rush to do so, hoping instead that departing seniors – like high-end offensive line prospect Dillon Radunz – get their moment.

“I don’t think it’s about me,” Lance told Yahoo Sports in a lengthy interview last week. “I struggle with everyone calling this a showcase game. That was never the intention of our coaching staff. That’s not what they’re about, and not what I’m about.”

What is Lance about? He’s a reluctant and robotic TikTok dancer, avid painter of Nike Air Force 1s and socially conscious enough to discuss the killing of George Floyd in his home state and advocate for Black Lives Matter on social media.

Those who know him best use “empathetic” as a defining trait, as he has stood up to bullies in high school, hosted Bible studies on Zoom during the pandemic and says going to children’s hospitals and reading at local schools are among his favorite activities in Fargo.

“When Carson Wentz was coming out, scouts would say, ‘Give me a red flag,’” said former NDSU coach Chris Klieman, now at Kansas State. “I’d tell them there isn’t one. The same with Trey Lance, there’s not one red flag about him.”

As scouts dig deeper they’ll explore a compelling contradiction – a prospect who has soared from unknown to rare air but managed to remain firmly grounded.

‘We all look pretty stupid’

When distilling Trey Lance’s college recruitment to its essence back in 2017, Carlton Lance asked his son a simple question: “Do you want to be the guy? Or the second guy?”

The setting for Trey Lance’s athletic rise offers the perfect incubator for an out-of-nowhere story. He hails from tiny Marshall, Minnesota, which has about 14,000 people and is best known as the home of Schwan’s Ice Cream. He played in a Wing-T offense at juggernaut Marshall High School that perhaps has been too successful with a 74-6 regular-season record during the 2010s. All that winning typically meant big leads and no statistical accumulation in the second half.

Trey Lance did the camp circuit around the Midwest as a recruit, but his football-savvy father, a former CFL defensive back, remained skeptical of chasing bigger offers and brighter lights. He learned over the years that opportunity doesn’t always equate with stadium size. If staffs didn’t see Trey’s potential, he wasn’t going to beg them to.

The University of Minnesota liked him but saw him as an athlete, as P.J. Fleck’s staff already had a quarterback commitment from Brennan Armstrong, the current starter at Virginia.

Marshall High School coach Terry Bahlmann said another Big Ten school wanted Lance as an outside linebacker. Lance never got any Big Ten offers, but they all agree now on how badly they missed.

“He was adamant about playing quarterback, and that may have limited his opportunities,” said one Big Ten assistant coach. “We all look pretty stupid in retrospect.”

Perhaps more notable than those who missed on Lance is both his conviction to play quarterback and NDSU’s belief in his ability to thrive at the position. North Dakota State targeted Lance as its top recruit and sold him hard with a clear plan. “They believed what they saw,” Carlton Lance said.

The belief in NDSU was reciprocated. They’d seen the relentless winning, Wentz’s No. 2 selection in the 2016 NFL draft and the prolific career of future NFL fifth-round pick Easton Stick. Carlton Lance knew NDSU would have more talent than most of its opponents and play 16 games most seasons.

Carlton Lance played in NFL camps with the Houston Oilers and San Francisco 49ers, and bouncing around the football fringes left him unimpressed with fancy logos. Opportunity always trumps flash. “Some schools were still trying to hem and haw, and that was getting me more upset than anything,” Carlton said. He told Trey:You have to understand what they’re doing. They’re dragging you along like a piece of meat behind the car.”

Trey’s parents, Carlton and Angie Lance, appreciated the specificity of North Dakota State’s plan. Soon after Trey took part in a camp prior to his junior season, then-head coach Chris Klieman sold Trey on being Stick’s “shadow” for a year. Klieman delivered a simple pitch – come here and we’ll build our class around you.

Lance returned to Fargo for a game, got swayed by the atmosphere and eventually became the program’s first commitment in the 2018 class. NDSU quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg howled with delight from a hotel – “probably a Marriott” – in Billings, Montana.

“You have these days you remember in your lifetime,” Hedberg said. “You remember where you were when Elvis Presley passed or JFK got shot. I remember the day Trey Lance told me he was going to be a Bison.”

Both sides ended up thrilled he became the guy.

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is shown with his family. (Photo credit: Lance family)
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is shown with his family. (Photo credit: Lance family)

Breakfast with Easton Stick

When Easton Stick arrived at North Dakota State in the summer of 2014, he crashed on Carson Wentz’s couch during summer workouts.

He’s grateful for the two years he spent learning under Wentz, who Stick recalls “poured into me” the ethos of the program. “I was lucky to have someone who took me under his wing and showed me the program is bigger than yourself,” Stick said.

That appreciation got passed on to Lance when he arrived in June of 2018. Stick already graduated and essentially majored in football his final year. That meant 7 a.m. arrivals at the facility every day for voluntary film and breakfast. While Lance mowed down Fruity Pebbles, Stick devoured piles of eggs, oatmeal and berries. He’d take a hot black tea to what Lance now appreciates as an introductory seminar class – College Quarterback 101.

Lance recalls the weekly routine because he has carried the framework of it on to the current NDSU quarterbacks. On Sundays they’d watch three or four games after church. Then they’d begin the morning routine – Mondays for studying base defenses, Tuesday analyzing third downs and pressures, Wednesday looking at red zone and run checks, Thursdays for two-minute drill and Fridays they met with the other skill players to go over the nuances of the gameplan.

All that exposure helped a wide-eyed freshman see what he needed to develop into. “I can’t imagine where I’d be without being able to spend the time with Easton that year,” Lance said. “I’m super thankful he took the time to answer my questions. He cared so much about the program and me.”

Lance showed early aptitude, sneaking into the office of NDSU head coach Matt Entz, then the defensive coordinator, to watch opposing offenses to give better scout team looks. Entz chuckles, as Stick did the same when backing up Wentz.

Stick recalls Lance’s curiosity, humility and the instant respect he fostered in the locker room. “He’s an alpha and a leader,” Stick said. “He’s one of those guys that people gravitate toward, myself included, as an older player on that team. I was drawn to Trey. It’s a natural thing for him.”

All three NDSU starting quarterbacks since 2014 have been drawn to Hedberg, a 65-year-old quarterback savant who has been on a comparable run of productive quarterbacks to those in places like Norman, Columbus and Clemson. If Lance goes in the first round as expected, that’d be three draft picks, two first-rounders and at least five national titles.

Hedberg won’t be mistaken for Sean McVay or Lincoln Riley at any coaching clinics with his white hair and Google Maps résumé that includes Minot State, Central Missouri and St. Cloud State. Since hiring Hedberg as quarterbacks coach in 2014, NDSU has gone 85-6, Wentz went No. 2 overall and Stick finished as the winningest quarterback in FCS history (49-3). Lance is aiming to finish the fall with dueling perfections – a 17-0 record as a starter and no career interceptions.

“The one person who doesn’t get enough credit is Randy Hedberg,” said Entz, who promoted Hedberg to associate head coach in 2019 after getting the head coach job. “He’s the common denominator between these guys.”

Lance entered last summer in a taut quarterback competition with Zeb Noland, an Iowa State transfer who Lance and the Bison staff rave about. Lance won the job and just kept soaring. He became the first player to win both the FCS awards for top player (Walter Payton Award) and top freshman (Jerry Rice Award). He set the all-divisions record with 287 consecutive pass attempts in a single season without an interception.

The lessons of Stick and Hedberg were applied faster than anyone could have expected. “Zero picks,” Stick said. “That just doesn’t happen. You knew he was talented, but how quickly it happened was kind of crazy.”

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance (5) runs with the ball during the first half of the FCS championship game on Jan. 11, 2020. (AP)
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance (5) runs with the ball during the first half of the FCS championship game on Jan. 11, 2020. (AP)

Can Trey Lance catch Trevor Lawrence?

With more than 60% of NFL franchises taking trains, plane and automobiles to Fargo during a pandemic, a compelling question has emerged: How much can one game matter for a prospect?

“It’s hugely consequential if this is indeed the only game he plays this year,” said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a longtime NFL executive. “If this is his only game, it will be fairly or unfairly weighted given this is his only game tape of 2020.”

So what will the scouts see? Body types are a huge part of the in-person evaluation process. Stick says Lance will cut a familiar figure to scouts: “He looks like he could be a tight end or a linebacker. He’s got a real thick, athletic build and he’s only 20, still maturing.”

James Madison defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman’s first impression of Lance was his combination of size and athleticism. To clinch the national title against JMU on a snowy day in Texas in January, Lance ran 30 times for 166 yards. That included a 44-yard dash on third-and-23 to open the fourth quarter, which proved the game-winning score in a 28-20 victory. The carries and yards were both season highs, by a long shot.

Hetherman broke down every NDSU game last season, and when he flipped channels around the NFL last week, he saw similar dual-threat skills when watching the Texans (Deshaun Watson), Cardinals (Kyler Murray) and Ravens (Lamar Jackson). While all played superior college competition, none have Lance’s linebacker build.

Five scouts contacted by Yahoo all cast him as a sure-fire first-round pick. No one considered him in the same rare air as presumptive No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence, although respected NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah called Lance the “most impressive of the three guys” earlier this year after watching three of each player’s games.

When one NFL scout saw Lance live last season, he immediately began texting back to his office in a panic to figure out who he was. (As a redshirt freshman at the time, Lance wouldn’t have been listed for scouts to look at because he wasn’t draft-eligible.)

Another scout projected to Yahoo Sports that Lance is a sure-fire top-15 pick and could climb into the top five. With his quarterback competition playing a full season, it’s safer to project Lance third, for now. The early read in the scouting community is that the caliber and potential of Lawrence, Fields and Lance is rare for a quarterback class, as all could have been considered for the No. 1 pick in many other drafts.

What do scouts like about Lance?

“He does everything well,” said an area scout. “He’s big, accurate and doesn’t turn the ball over. He can make plays on the move. Those are all things you are looking for in today’s game.”

One of the things that makes Lance such an attractive prospect is the sophistication of NDSU’s offense under second-year coordinator Tyler Roehl. The Bison run a rare college offense that huddles, demands the quarterback calls out protections at the line and is comprised of an estimated 60% of snaps from under center. Think the opposite of the Baylor offense.

Lance completed 67% of his passes while making full-field reads. He also mixed in the designed quarterback run game becoming more prominent in the NFL, as Lance scored 14 rushing touchdowns and ran for 1,100 yards. NDSU also pushes the ball down the field – he averaged 9.71 yards per attempt and threw for 2,786 yards – which makes the lack of interceptions more impressive.

“He’s prepared to do everything he’ll be asked to do in the NFL,” said Quincy Avery, a prominent quarterback trainer out of the Atlanta area who Lance took three trips to work with in recent months. “They do as good a job as anyone in the country in developing the quarterback position.”

For Avery, the positive impression transcends the raw talent. To plan for every workout, Lance would send Avery a lengthy text about location, who would be catching the ball and what they’d be working on so he could be prepared. Many college players just show up.

When asked about Lance’s potential, Avery chuckled while referencing a Dr. Seuss book he’s reading to Quest, his 3-year-old daughter: “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

He said part of the excitement about Lance is his rare ability to take nuanced instruction and immediately apply it to his throws – things like generating rotational force with his leg – that can take weeks of instruction before some players can apply it. “The way he goes about his business, he’s different, he’s a 35-year-old man,” Avery said with a laugh. “When you spend any time around him, wherever you had him on the draft board, you’re going to have him higher.”

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after beating James Madison 28-20 in the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas. (AP)
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after beating James Madison 28-20 in the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas. (AP)

‘Football is not who I am’

Everyone has a story about the moment they realized Lance’s sudden fame. Angie Lance says that her younger son, Bryce, got recognized recently at a mall in Fargo without Trey around. (He’s a star receiver at Marshall High with an NDSU offer.) Carlton Lance recalls the first time he heard veteran NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper mention his son. Trey’s best friend and roommate at NDSU, Phoenix Sproles, cousin of longtime NFL running back Darren Sproles, said people began reaching out to him on Snapchat to relay messages to Lance.

The person most comfortable with the newfound spotlight has been Trey, who has quickly learned to harness the power of a platform that includes 22,700 followers on Instagram and 8,625 on Twitter. And when he gets to the NFL, he has already given a vision of how he’ll use his platform.

“Football is not who I am, it’s what I do,” Lance said. “I’m obviously going to put everything possible into it because that’s what I love to do. But at the end of the day, I think God put that in my plan to use it as my platform.”

After the presidential debate on Tuesday, Lance tweeted: VOTE. In May, he marched through Fargo with some teammates holding a sign over his head that read: I CAN’T BREATHE #JUSTICE FOR GEORGE FLOYD.

On Instagram recently, Lance posted: “BREONNA, I’M SO SORRY.”

That theme of activism will follow him into the professional ranks. “As far of my platform at the next level, just realizing that we’re not put on Earth to be football players or to be doctors or lawyers or whatever it is,” Lance said.

Lance calls growing up in bucolic Marshall “a blessing and a curse.” Town demographic estimates vary, but generally show the population of Marshall is nearly 80% white. Lance’s mother is white and his father is Black, which stood out in a town with little racial diversity. Marshall was idyllic in a sense that Trey’s childhood unfolded as one long pickup game of hoops or backyard football, playing outside with friends from dawn until the street lights turned on. (Angie is a senior recruiter for Schwan’s Home Delivery, and Carlton and a business partner own an equipment financing company, Hampton Ridge Financial.) While Trey appreciated the safe environment of the town and is happy he grew up there, he now realizes the bubble works both ways. “People are naïve to the fact that there is racism and there is bigotry,” he said.

Lance acknowledges that he may receive some blowback Saturday and beyond from “closed-minded people” for his vocal stances. He said he’s appreciated the NDSU football coaches for creating tangible change amid the outcry for racial equality this summer, not just sending a tweet and focusing back on the down-and-distance myopic mentality inherent to football.

Angie Lance said she takes happiness from her son performing well on the field and pride for finding his voice off of it. “I’m not surprised and I’m very proud of him,” she said. “I know it comes today with a lot of controversy and misunderstanding. That hurts me when I hear some of these athletes being disparaged for speaking out.”

Lance said he’s painting his shoes for the game on Saturday with a social message. “I don’t want to give it away too much,” he said. “It’ll be something bigger than football.”

Lance has long seen beyond the field. In high school, he was one of the local leaders of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He impressed Robin Knudson, an FCA of Southwest Minnesota staff member, with his ability to share his testimony. In his grade at Marshall, Lance and best friend Jake Hess were the lone male FCA leaders. “Trey’s identity is not being a football player,” Knudson said. “It comes from something greater. That helps him stay grounded.

“He’s not trying to be Superman. He’s going to be Trey Lance.”

This weekend, in a rare one-game setting, a larger audience will be tuning in to see just what that means.

More from Yahoo Sports: