Trey Lance is a small-town Minnesotan who's confident he can thrive as a franchise-defining quarterback on football's biggest stage. Finding out which team agrees with him will be one of the more intriguing and pivotal developments to unfold Thursday evening when the first round of the 2021 NFL draft is held in Cleveland.
"Whichever team picks me, they're getting a great human being who loves football," said Lance, the Marshall native who went 17-0 as a starter at North Dakota State. "I'm confident I'll be ready to go [this year]."
No one disputes the 6-4, 224-pounder's many physical attributes. Or his mental acumen. Or his character, leadership qualities or work ethic.
The quandary for general managers comes in Lance's small sample size of FCS games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Can the league's decision-makers really be first-round-caliber certain that a 20-year-old who has played one game in 15 months can transfer his electrifying dual-threat weaponry to the next level?
"I know this is the highest level, but when I hear people say that, it sounds a lot like his college recruitment," said Carlton Lance, Trey's father. "If you don't see the skill set, if you don't value the skill set, I can't help you. But the skill set is there. It's undeniable."
The Jaguars and Jets are expected to make quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Zach Wilson of Brigham Young the first and second picks Thursday. Lance could beat out quarterbacks Justin Fields of Ohio State and Mac Jones of Alabama at No. 3 to the 49ers. Lance also could go to Atlanta as Matt Ryan's understudy at No. 4; be the target of a needy team trading into the top 10; go to Denver at No. 9; or still be sitting in the green room in Cleveland when the Vikings are on the clock at 14.
"We're prepared for if one of those top five quarterbacks is sitting there at 14," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said last week. "What do you do versus another position or two that you really covet? Our options will be thoroughly discussed."
The pressure, of course, isn't just on the general managers. All eyes and lofty expectations are on the quarterbacks the moment their names are called on Day 1. A record 15.6 million people watched the first round a year ago.
Some quarterbacks soar. Some sink.
Fourteen of them were taken in the top 10 from 2009 to '16. Not one is still with the team that drafted him. That includes the top two picks in 2015 (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) and 2016 (Jared Goff and Carson Wentz).
The No. 2 pick in 2017 (Mitchell Trubisky) and the No. 3 pick in 2018 (Sam Darnold) were dumped after last season by the teams that drafted them.
"We're certainly not naive about the pressure that comes with playing quarterback in the NFL," said Angie Lance, Trey's mother. "But I think you have to know Trey to understand why we feel the pressure of being a first-round draft pick is not going to impact how Trey plays football or who Trey is as a person."
Don't just take Mom's word for it. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former player and personnel executive, was enamored by Lance's play and his first pro day performance.
"What he showed me first and foremost is he has an absolute gun on him for an arm," Riddick said. "He's an excellent athlete and an even better kid. He exudes the kind of calmness and confidence that's going to bode very well for him. Whatever franchise ends up drafting him is going to be very, very happy."
Southwest Minnesota roots
Angie grew up in Marshall, a city of 13,680 in southwest Minnesota. She stayed in town for college, attending Southwest Minnesota State, where she met Carlton, a star in track and football.
Carlton, a cornerback, went on to play one season for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the CFL and one season for the London Monarchs of the World League. He went to camp with the 49ers in 1994 but was cut.
"That was the early days of free agency," Carlton said. "The 49ers flew Deion Sanders in and flew me out."
Carlton passed the athleticism and passion for football on to his sons Trey and Bryce, an all-state receiver heading to NDSU in the fall. Carlton also passed along to Trey a love of watching film hour after hour, day after day.
"I would call it an obsession," Angie said. "It's actually quite an issue at our house with Carlton. And, yes, Trey definitely followed in his footsteps."
Carlton shared his defensive mentality as Trey's defensive backs coach at Marshall High School. Trey played safety and quarterback, returned kicks, and even blocked a field goal and then scooped and scored.
"He was all over the field for us," Marshall coach Terry Bahlmann said. "He was a really hard hitter at safety. In fact, one of our biggest concerns was he would get some kind of targeting call on defense and we'd lose him at quarterback."
Lance became the starting quarterback late in his sophomore season when senior Thomas Fischer broke his arm. As a starter, Lance went 16-0 in the regular season, 7-3 in the postseason and helped Marshall to its first state tournament since the 1980s.
Lance didn't have great stats in Bahlmann's Wing-T offense, accumulating 33 touchdowns passing and 18 rushing over two-plus seasons.
"Of course, he only played the first half of most games because we were up so big at halftime," Bahlmann said. "We averaged 51.3 points and scored 70 three times his senior year."
No FBS scholarships to play quarterback were offered until Boise State came in after Lance had already fallen in love with NDSU. Several Big Ten programs wanted him as a safety.
The Gophers wanted him as a quarterback when Tracy Claeys was the head coach. But Claeys was fired and replaced by P.J. Fleck, who saw Lance as a safety or outside linebacker.
"We met with [Fleck] and he said, 'Trey, I'm going to recruit the heck out of you, but I brought a quarterback with me and I promised him and his family that I would not take another quarterback in his class,'" Angie said.
That quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, ended up decommitting and going to Virginia at the last moment.
"I respect Coach Fleck for being extremely honest with us," Angie said. "I remember Trey shook his hand and said, 'Thank you for being honest, but I'm a quarterback.' So, yeah, it stung. For about 30 minutes."
Excelling at North Dakota State
NDSU couldn't offer Big Ten-sized stadiums, but it did give Lance noted longtime quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg and a pro-style West Coast-based offense that requires the quarterback to set protections and read the whole field.
"Our quarterback isn't looking to the sideline for what to do at the line of scrimmage," Bison coach Matt Entz said. "I believe the best thing about Trey is above his shoulders."
NDSU also offered a lot of winning — the Bison have won eight of the past nine FCS championships — and a line of quarterbacks that includes Wentz, the second overall pick in 2016; and Easton Stick, the winningest quarterback (49-3) in FCS history and a fifth-round pick of the Chargers in 2019.
Lance succeeded Stick as a redshirt freshman in 2019. His lanky high school frame had filled out by about 40 pounds, and he was still running in the 4.5 range.
FCS opponents couldn't keep up. While going 16-0 and winning the national title, Lance passed for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 287 attempts, an NCAA record for attempts without an interception. He also ran for 1,100 yards, a 6.5-yard average and 14 touchdowns. And, oh yeah, in his only full collegiate season, Lance managed to win awards named after Jerry Rice (top FCS freshman) and Walter Payton (top FCS player).
Because of the pandemic, NDSU decided to play just one game in 2020 before the FCS season was moved to the spring. The 39-28 victory over Central Arkansas on Oct. 3 wasn't the showcase game Lance was hoping for. He threw his only collegiate interception and completed 50% of his passes, but he also ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns while leaving college without a loss.
"I played every game I possibly could in college," Lance said. "I thought I'd win another championship in January. Everyone got cheated out of something with COVID."
Lance has spent the past six months or so training with Quincy Avery, a south Minneapolis native and noted developer of quarterbacks. A self-proclaimed "football junkie," Lance also has been watching film of NFL defenses. Yes, already.
"Nobody watches more film than Trey," said high school teammate Reece Winkelman, a South Dakota State defensive end who averaged 28 yards a catch as a tight end Lance's junior year at Marshall.
"It's crazy how much film he watches. It's also crazy that my bus buddy I sat next to on all the away games at Marshall is going to be a top-10 pick."
Will he be worth that pick? And how soon will be ready to prove it?
"All I know is Trey has all the tools," said Hedberg, his college quarterbacks coach. "His knowledge of the game and ability to process quickly at the line of scrimmage is as good as anybody I've coached.
"The NFL is more complex, obviously, but I think he'll learn that game quickly. He has that 'it' factor. I really do think he's a franchise quarterback who can carry a team with his personality and leadership."
Which team agrees with that is worth tuning in for Thursday night.