The legs are nimble and the arm is strong. But it’s the head sitting atop Carson Wentz’s prototypical body that has NFL hearts aflutter as the 2016 draft gets set to kick off Thursday night in Chicago.
“Why do I think Carson will make the leap from North Dakota State to the NFL?” asked Zach Wentz, the older brother of a quarterback who has only 612 pass attempts and 23 starts at college football’s FCS level.
“He’ll make it because of all the things that happen between his ears. His intellect, the ability to handle adversity and really understand information. We were raised to understand that the future is what we make of it. Certainly, physical skills are necessary, but I think the ones who separate themselves at the NFL level are the ones who can handle it between the ears.”
What about off the field? Will he do the right things when the wrong ones are much more fun? Will he stay hungry after his bank account is full? Will he earn respect in the locker room or join Johnny Manziel in learning the hard way that what an NFL quarterback does in Vegas definitely does not stay in Vegas?
People close to Wentz chuckle at such notions and insist that all typical character concerns don’t apply to this atypical prospect.
“Vegas? Carson? No, that won’t happen,” laughed Ron Wingenbach, Wentz’s football coach at Bismarck (N.D.) Century High School. “During his bye week, he’ll probably be out hunting with his dog in the woods of North Dakota.”
Early this month, NDSU quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg was asked if Wentz would become the highest-drafted FCS quarterback in NFL history, surpassing Steve McNair, who was selected third overall by the Houston Oilers in 1995 out of Alcorn State.
“Carson is the best quarterback in the draft, and he’s going to be the first one taken,” said Hedberg, who played one NFL season for Tampa Bay in 1977. “Cleveland came into Fargo and really liked Carson. But I know there are other teams that really like him, too. Nothing will surprise me.”
A week later, the Rams swung a blockbuster trade with Tennessee to move from No. 15 to No. 1 overall. Then Philadelphia made its move, dealing with Cleveland to move to No. 2. The presumption is those teams have targeted Cal quarterback Jared Goff and Wentz.
“He’s got it all and he’s a high-morals kid,” Hedberg said. “You can look, but you’re not going to find a lot of holes in Carson Wentz.”
Wingenbach remembers Wentz long before he was anything but the next big thing.
“He was 5-8, 125 as a freshman,” he said. “He was all elbows, knees and ankles.”
Today, Wentz is a 6-5, 237-pound mountain of hope. In 80 NFL drafts, only four FCS quarterbacks have been selected in the first round. Besides McNair, Joe Flacco (Delaware) went 18th to Baltimore in 2008, Doug Williams (Grambling) 17th to Washington in 1978 and Phil Simms (Morehead State) seventh to the Giants in 1979. Each took his team to a Super Bowl and all but McNair won one.
“I see a ceiling for [Wentz] that’s similar to Andrew Luck,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “That’s why I believe in this kid so much.”
Wentz doesn’t think comparisons are fair.
“We’re all just college kids,” he said. But he did admit hearing them, “is always cool.”
Wentz went 20-3 with two national titles, extending NDSU’s streak of championships to five. He completed 64 percent of his passes, had a 45-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio and ran for 1,028 yards and 13 more touchdowns.
“First and foremost, as a franchise quarterback, you got to win,” Wentz said. “Coming out of North Dakota State, I think the track record speaks for itself as a winner. When I think of a franchise quarterback, not only do I think of the physical ability, but I think of being a winner, taking command, being a leader.”
Wentz had a 4.0 grade-point average in high school, where he played six sports at one time or another. Then he kept the 4.0 streak alive as a health and education major at NDSU.
His dad, Doug, is a bank loan officer and a former linebacker at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. His mom, Cathy Anhalt, works for the American Heart Association. They divorced when Carson was a child, but Wingenbach said Carson grew up as just a “normal kid from North Dakota.”
Well, mostly normal. Wentz did take calculus as a senior elective for no reason other than to actually learn calculus.
“He didn’t need calculus to graduate,” Wingenbach said. “But Carson always challenges himself on and off the field.”
Heading for Fargo
The start of Wentz’s NFL-sized growth spurt began toward the end of his sophomore year at Century. But the plan to start Wentz at quarterback on the varsity team as a junior was shelved when Wentz showed up with a shoulder injury from baseball and then broke his wrist. He returned later that season as a receiver and free safety.
The next year, Wentz was 6-5 and 200 pounds when he started nine games at quarterback, missing one because of a concussion. He led Century to the state semifinals that year.
“It wasn’t until about the seventh game of the season before we even started getting some inquiries from colleges,” Wingenbach said. “There just wasn’t much film on Carson.”
Central Michigan was the only Division I school that showed any interest.
“The week after Carson visited NDSU, he was going to go to Central Michigan, which presumably was going to be an offer,” said Zach Wentz, who was at NDSU as a star baseball player at the time. “But going to Fargo, seeing the tradition, knowing that I was already there, being close to the family, his mind was made up.”
Wentz sat as Brock Jensen led the Bison to three national titles. Jensen now plays for the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks.
As a junior, Wentz threw for 3,111 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while rushing for six TDs. Three times in the playoffs, Wentz led fourth-quarter comebacks, including the title game when he scored a touchdown on a 5-yard run with 37 seconds left in a 29-27 win over Illinois State.
As a senior, Wentz missed eight games because of a broken wrist. While recovering, he spent hours helping his backup, Easton Stick, prepare. Stick went 8-0, including 3-0 in the playoffs, to reach the national title game. Wentz returned, threw for 197 yards and ran for three touchdowns in a 37-10 rout of Jacksonville (Ala.) State.
“The biggest thing scouts ask me is whether Carson can take the learning part of the position and put it into play while processing everything during the course of a game,” Hedberg said. “He can. He’s a football junkie. And we’re a pro-style offense. He’s used to being under center, making protection calls, reading defenses. We’re not a team that has to look to the sideline for everything.”
Wentz stated his case as a rising prospect even more emphatically alongside stiffer competition at the Senior Bowl. He played well and showed off his high football IQ during private interviews there and at the scouting combine.
“You come into these meetings, you show how much you’re capable of learning, how quick you’re able to adjust and acquire information and spit it back out,” Wentz said. “That’s really all you can do.”
Teams also have noticed how well Wentz interacts with teammates.
“We call him a ‘servant leader’ because he’ll do anything to help a teammate on or off the field,” said former NDSU teammate Joe Haeg, the left tackle who went to Brainerd High School.
“I think he made us better people because he’s faith-driven and motivated,” added running back Chase Morlock, who is from Moorhead, Minn. “I have no doubt he’ll hop up and succeed at the next level. He’s a confident dude and he’s going to be the hardest worker on whichever team takes him.”
Two years ago, right before his life was about to hit hyperspace, Wentz went shopping.
“He’s in college and he buys this dog, Henley, a golden retriever,” said Zach, now a high school teacher and baseball coach in Bismarck. “I was like, ‘What are you doing? How are you going to handle all this and a puppy?’ But Carson likes to stay busy. He’d come home between classes or between lifting and meetings and go out and train his dog to hunt.”
Henley is a little over 2 years old, born about the time Wentz’s NFL prospects began to hatch. He goes just about everywhere Wentz goes and is used to hunting whatever is in season.
Well, hang on, Henley. Apparently your master has what it takes between the ears to be the face of football from NDSU and Fargo to L.A. or Philly.