For college football afficionados, hotbeds like Athens, Tuscaloosa and Clemson will be the sites to watch Saturday, with matchups like Auburn vs. Georgia, Texas A&M vs. Alabama and Virginia vs. Clemson to savor.
For pro scouts, however, the attention will be on Fargo, where representatives from more than 20 NFL teams will be on hand to see North Dakota State host Central Arkansas in the Bison’s only game this fall.
The main attraction in the Fargodome: Trey Lance, NDSU’s scintillating sophomore who’s being mentioned with fellow quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State as likely high picks in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.
Impressive stuff for a 20-year-old from Marshall, Minn., who announced his presence with authority last season, leading the Bison to their third consecutive FCS national championship. Though the 6-4, 226-pound Lance hasn’t announced his intentions, the industry consensus is that he will forgo his final two years at NDSU, including the eight-game schedule next spring, and enter the NFL draft.
“I’m a thousand percent focused on winning this game, and anything else is all hypothetical at this point,” Lance politely told reporters during a video call this week. “I’ll let you guys talk about the NFL.”
People are talking about Lance and the NFL because of his performance as a redshirt freshman last season. On the way to leading the Bison to a 16-0 record, he passed for 28 touchdowns without an interception — an NCAA all-division record for most passes in a season without a pick. He also rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs, the last being a 44-yard scramble that helped seal NDSU’s 28-20 win over James Madison in the FCS title game.
For his efforts, Lance won the Walter Payton Award as the FCS Offensive Player of the Year and the Jerry Rice Award as top FCS freshman. Lance’s draft stock rocketed, even as uncertainty mounted about the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s handled it like a pro. He’s done a great job of internalizing some things,” Bison coach Matt Entz said. “The more I get to know Trey, the more I understand he doesn’t show a lot of things to the public, but he is a thinker.”
Lance isn’t the first Bison QB to draw the attention of the NFL. Carson Wentz was selected No. 2 overall by the Eagles in 2016, and Easton Stick was picked in the fifth round by the Chargers in 2019.
Daniel Jeremiah, an NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout, wrote that Lance reminds him of former Colts QB Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
“I was shocked at the maturity in Lance’s game,” Jeremiah wrote. “It’s uncommon to see a redshirt senior demonstrate this type of control and mastery of a system. Lance was a redshirt freshman!”
The pride of Marshall
If you want to know about Trey Lance, study his roots in Marshall, a farming-focused community of about 14,000. It’s home of Southwest Minnesota State, where Lance’s father, Carlton, starred as a defensive back on his way to earning Canadian Football League all-rookie honors. He spent time in training camps with the Houston Oilers and San Francisco 49ers.
Carlton instilled in Trey the value of preparation and quick decisionmaking.
“If you’re up to speed mentally, you can show your ability,” Carlton said. “It’s one thing to play at 100 miles per hour, it’s another thing to think at 100 miles per hour. … If you’re thinking out there, you’re not moving. The game will pass you by.”
Trey’s mother, Angie, is a Marshall native who enjoys his football success but is more impressed with his leadership, confidence and humility.
“He is very well-grounded,” she said. “He knows that at 20 years old, we haven’t done anything yet in life that we should be puffing our chests out. When we’re 100 years old and we can look back and say we made a difference in the world, then if you want to puff your chest, you go ahead.”
Terry Bahlmann, Marshall High School’s football coach, saw a converted running back with promise and a little something extra.
“We saw him throw it, and we said, ‘Ah, he’s not too bad,’ ” Bahlmann said. “Trey just kept working and working. I remember telling my wife, Jan, that, ‘There’s something special about him. He’s going to be a special player.’ ”
North Dakota State coaches thought so, too.
“They saw him as a quarterback and made that clear,’’ Carlton Lance said. “They treated him as such and made sure he knew he was their No. 1 guy on the board. … A few schools were looking for him at different positions.’’
The Gophers were among teams that recruited Lance, but he committed to the Bison during his official visit to Fargo in March 2017.
Using his platform
Lance’s role as a leader extends off the field, too. He’s a regular in NDSU’s community outreach programs and has been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes since high school. “He will tell you that Jesus is his best friend,” Angie Lance said.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Lance participated in a march in Fargo, holding a sign that read, “I Can’t Breathe.”
“The social unrest thing is obviously something that’s a lot bigger than football and a lot bigger than me or anyone else,” Lance said. “That’s been more on my mind than anything, especially the past few months. … There needs to be change. For change, people need to educate themselves. It’s going to take a lot.”
That Trey would take that stance didn’t surprise Angie.
“Trey is fiercely loyal and will always stand up for what’s right,” she said. “That’s not always easy. Right now, there’s so much misunderstanding sometimes when athletes are standing up for what is right, and it can become controversial.”
On Saturday, Lance will play what might be his final game for NDSU (2:30 p.m., ESPN Plus), with his NFL choice looming. He’s approaching it in an even-keeled manner, trying to enjoy the ride and not rushing anything.
“I’ll talk to my family after the game,” he said. “I’m not going to let anything take away from the guys here. Even after the game Saturday, I’m sure I’ll get the same question. I’m not going to have an answer for you then, either.’’