- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
Carlton Lance remembers only two of his son’s passes that could have been intercepted during North Dakota State’s 16-0 season in 2019.
There was an out route in a 27-16 victory against UC Davis when a cornerback cut under the Bison receiver and nearly picked off the pass.
And there was a throw down the middle in a 22-0 shutout of Missouri State when Lance’s son didn’t see the backside linebacker, who dropped the ball after it hit him in the hands.
Otherwise, much like the Bison’s third straight national title-winning campaign (and eighth in nine years!), Trey Lance’s first season as North Dakota State’s starting quarterback was pretty much perfect.
Remarkably, Lance didn’t throw an interception in 287 attempts, setting the NCAA all-division record for most passing attempts in a season without one. He completed 66.9% of his passes for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns, while running 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 more scores. He led the FCS in passing efficiency (180.6) and established single-season school records for passing efficiency and total offense (3,886 yards).
He was named the most outstanding player in North Dakota State’s 28-20 victory against James Madison in the FCS national championship, which helped the Bison achieve the first 16-0 season in college football since 1894. He won the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in the FCS and the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman, becoming the first player to win both honors.
Lance and the Bison will take the field on Saturday for the first and only time this fall against Central Arkansas at the Fargodome (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ and ESPN app), which typically seats 18,700. Only 8,400 fans are expected after many season-ticket holders opted out because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It also could be most fans’ last chance to see the player they might have read about but never seen in action.
Lance, a draft-eligible sophomore, is projected as the third-best quarterback available for the 2021 NFL draft, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Both analysts project Lance among the top 10 picks overall.
Lance says he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll enter the NFL draft or return to North Dakota State for another season. The Bison are scheduled to play eight more games from late February through mid-April. The NFL draft is scheduled for April 29 to May 1 in Cleveland.
“We’ve talked about it,” Lance recently told ESPN. “My family has been up here to talk about it. Right now, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I’m just 100 percent focused on this game. I’ve had conversations with the coaching staff and my family, and I’m gathering information and getting as much feedback and advice as I can get.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, Lance has the size, arm strength, mobility and decision-making that NFL teams covet. The only thing he lacks is greater experience at the collegiate level. After redshirting in 2018 and playing behind current Los Angeles Chargers backup Easton Stick, Lance would have only 17 career starts if he elects to leave before the Bison resume their season in February.
“It’s all about what other people think,” Lance said. “It’s not really about what I think. I’ve done everything I can to play as many games as possible. If that was my decision at the end of the fall, I’ve played as many games as I possibly can. I’m loving it here at North Dakota State, so we’ll see what happens.”
Former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz faced similar questions after he missed much of his senior season because of a broken wrist in 2015. Wentz went 20-3 as a starter before he was the No. 2 pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2016 NFL draft, the highest selection of an FCS player in the draft’s history.
Stick, a fifth-round pick by the Chargers in 2019, is the winningest quarterback in FCS history with a 49-3 record.
“I think it all depends on the individual,” Bison coach Matt Entz said. “When Carson Wentz was going through the same process, people were concerned about whether [23 starts] was enough. I think it depends on the organization and what they’re looking for. I know the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Quarterbacks are going to be drafted in the first round, regardless if they’re top-15 talent or not, because everybody needs to have one and everyone wants to have a game-changer at that position, just like we do.”
Lance wouldn’t be the first quarterback selected in the first round with limited starting experience in college. Since the 2006 NFL draft, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, six quarterbacks have been taken in the first round with fewer than 20 college starts: Mitchell Trubisky (13), Cam Newton (14), Dwayne Haskins Jr. (14), Mark Sanchez (16), Kyler Murray (17) and Ryan Tannehill (19).
“That’s not our decision at all, so it doesn’t matter what I think,” Carlton Lance said of his son’s decision to enter the draft. “It is what is. It’s what he has. That’s one thing you’ll find out about Trey and the Lance family, period: We don’t work in what-ifs or should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. If he moves forward, he moves forward. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. There’s no use in us being worried about that decision. We have no control of it.”
Like Wentz, Power 5 programs largely ignored Trey Lance coming out of high school. (Stick’s lone Power 5 offer was from Rutgers.) Teams from Group of 5 leagues such as Air Force, Boise State, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan offered Lance an opportunity to play quarterback. Power 5 coaches, however, only liked him as a receiver or defensive back, despite Lance throwing for 3,026 yards, running for nearly 1,200 yards and scoring 51 total touchdowns in his career playing in a wing-T offense at Marshall High School in Minnesota.
Lance attended summer camps at Minnesota and Nebraska, but offers to play quarterback never came.
“Boise State was the biggest offer he had,” his father said, adding that Lance rarely played quarterback in the second half because the scores were so out of hand.
“I tell everybody: Being from Marshall, they really didn’t believe what they were seeing, probably,” the elder Lance added. “He checked a lot of the boxes: He had the height, he could run the ball, he could throw the ball rolling out right or left. He was accurate. I’m just stating the facts.
“What I dislike hearing is that he bloomed late or something like that. He was 6-3 and 200-something pounds when he left high school. He could play. I’d like to see which box he didn’t check.”
Getting college recruiters to come to Marshall was a challenge in itself. The town of about 15,000 residents is 150 miles west of Minneapolis. Lance’s father grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and was a football and track star at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall from 1988 to 1991.
Ed Meierkort, later the head coach at South Dakota, recruited Carlton Lance for the SMSU Mustangs. When Meierkort first contacted him, a hurricane was headed for South Florida. Meierkort asked him how long hurricane season lasted.
“About 30 days,” Lance said. “How long does winter last up there?”
“About 30 days,” Meierkort replied.
Lance also was under the impression that Marshall wasn’t too far from the Twin Cities. When he arrived for preseason camp as a freshman, two SMSU players picked him up at the airport. They took him to a Twins game and then drove him to Marshall that night.
Lance fell asleep in the back seat of his teammate’s car, checked into his apartment late that night and finally saw the town the next morning. He was surprised to find a cornfield across the street from the team’s practice field. It wasn’t quite Minneapolis.
As a junior cornerback in 1990, Lance helped lead Southwest Minnesota State to its only conference championship. The team also qualified for the NAIA national playoffs for just the second time in school history.
Lance played one season for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and was named to the Canadian Football League’s all-rookie team in 1993. He also played for the London Monarchs of the World League in 1995 and was in training camp with the NFL’s Houston Oilers and San Francisco 49ers.
After retiring, Lance and his wife, Angie, whom he met in college, returned to her hometown of Marshall. Lance put a football in his son’s hand shortly after he was born. He has been a volunteer coach at Marshall High, where Trey’s younger brother, Bryce, is a senior wide receiver. The Bison are among the teams that have offered Bryce a scholarship.
Randy Hedberg, the Bison’s passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach, loved Trey Lance’s competitive nature and the physical way he played quarterback.
“He’s very athletic and has size,” Hedberg said. “He plays the game and quarterback position with a defensive mentality. His dad was a defensive coach and coached the secondary, and Trey played in the secondary in high school. I think that’s the way he plays. I don’t know if he’s going to be able to play that way at the next level, but he plays a very physical type of game.”
Carlton Lance said he encouraged his son to lower his shoulder or get out of bounds but to never be on the wrong end of a big hit.
“If it’s him and a guy, you’ve got to make a business decision,” he said. “You better make sure that he feels you, rather than you feeling him if you pull up. I always tell him that there wouldn’t have been a Tom Brady if Drew Bledsoe didn’t pull up by the sideline.”
What sold Trey Lance on the Bison were the program’s quarterback tradition and its offense. While other teams are running up-tempo offenses with no huddle and signal plays from the sideline, the Bison still huddle and call plays in the huddle. North Dakota State’s quarterbacks are tasked with setting protections and making run-and-pass checks at the line of scrimmage.
During game weeks, Lance studies hours of tape in preparation. On Mondays, he reviews the opponents’ overall schemes; Tuesdays are for third down; Wednesdays for red zone; and Thursdays for two-minute offense. On Fridays, after cutting film the previous day, Lance presents the game plan to his receivers, telling them where they need to be in particular concepts.
“He studies the game very hard,” Hedberg said. “I’d say he’s a football junkie.”
In Lance’s first game at North Dakota State in 2018, he scored on a 44-yard run against North Alabama. In his second game against South Dakota, he fumbled, kicked the ball twice and still scooped it up and scored on a 23-yard run.
In his first start against Butler at Target Field in Minneapolis last season, he completed 10 of 11 passes for 185 yards with four touchdowns and ran for 116 yards with two scores.
“He doesn’t get flat and he doesn’t get rattled,” Entz said. “This young man is different.”
Lance met Fields at the Elite 11 QB camp in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, this past spring, and he has only communicated with Lawrence on social media. While they might be separated by a level of NCAA competition and hundreds of miles, Lance is confident there isn’t much different about them when it comes to playing quarterback.
“They’re both faith-driven guys and great guys,” Lance said. “I don’t know if there’s any other schools, maybe Oklahoma, that’s doing what we’re doing at the quarterback position. The last three quarterbacks before me have all had legitimate NFL looks, and the last two have been drafted.
“Realistically, if you’re in the transfer portal or being recruited out of high school, if you’re really thinking about your future and where you want to be, I think bigger isn’t always better and the grass isn’t always greener. If your goal is to play at the next level, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to come to North Dakota State.”
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