Run the tape. Watch the film. There are a number of colloquialisms college football coaches and NFL evaluators use during the pre-draft process in an effort to advocate for players. Collegiate coaches will point to film and emphasize development; evaluators do the same in rooms with their respective team’s decision-makers. College evaluations, however, can be fickle with a number of factors, including location and level of competition, playing a role in what evaluators see and a player’s projected success at the next level. So, run the tape.
But what happens when the sample size is small? We’re not talking about a couple of seasons small; this is far below the typical threshold of games played, particularly games played at the most important position: quarterback. Trey Lance’s resume features just 17 collegiate starts at North Dakota State University (NDSU). He threw just one pass as a true freshman in 2018; he played his first and only full season the following year, complete with an FCS National Championship and numerous awards, including the Walter Payton Award and Jerry Rice Award. Then, in 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lance played in one non-conference “showcase” game. Lance then announced he was entering the 2021 NFL Draft, forgoing NDSU’s spring season and his final two years with the Bison.
Lance is in conversation as either the No. 2, 3, or 4 quarterback off the board behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. The discussions about Lance’s talent, however, quickly turns and nearly every point can be traced back to that small sample size as a small-school prospect.
No NFL hopeful is perfect, and no quarterback could give teams a complete picture; not Lawrence or even quarterbacks currently in the league finessing some of the biggest contracts with an overwhelming lack of production and success. Lance didn’t have the traditional avenues to show his skill set. Since he didn’t graduate, he couldn’t compete at the Senior Bowl, and the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine was also canceled, due to continued coronavirus concerns. Lance had one last opportunity to appeal to NFL evaluators Friday during NDSU’s Pro Day. It was the first time in six months Lance threw a ball inside the FargoDome.
Now, in the best shape of his life and under the direction of quarterback coach Quincy Avery—who trains the likes of Jalen Hurts and Deshaun Watson—Lance wowed. There could be a more eloquent way to describe the arm strength and poise he displayed in almost 60 passes in front of 30 NFL teams, but sometimes it’s that simple. Instead of focusing on what Lance does extremely well, some will say he’s inexperienced and he’ll need more time to develop. The concerns about his ball placement will overshadow his undefeated record as a starting quarterback or his 30:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Lance doesn’t have the sample size against top competition of the rest of the quarterbacks awaiting their NFL future, but his talent, first developed and nurtured by his parents, Carlton and Angie, aligns with the new direction of NFL passers. He’s versatile, durable, and has dual-threat abilities that have resulted in comparisons to a range of quarterbacks—some of these are laughable, but still, Lance doesn’t pay them any mind. He’s focused.
“Everyone’s an analyst on Twitter,” Lance said following Friday’s event. “Everyone can have their own comparison or whatever it is. For me, I try to take a lot of pieces from a lot of different guys’ games, but at the end of the day, I’m Trey Lance. I’m not anybody else.”
NDSU quarterback coach Randy Hedberg can pinpoint specific moments in Lance’s career where he showed he was pro-ready. While Hedberg has fielded questions from NFL scouts and brass centered around the number of games Lance has played, he can confidently point to specific moments where he executed at the highest level. One was in the 2020 FCS National Championship Game:
“We didn't anticipate going in the game and running Trey 30 times, which he ended up doing,” Hedberg explained Thursday, leading up to the school’s Pro Day, “some of those are scrambles and all.” Hedberg continued to describe how Lance was able to check the offense into protections against James Madison’s different pressures; this was a nod to Lance’s meticulous preparation.
Another time was Lance’s first collegiate start at Target Field in Minneapolis. Lance threw a post route to Phoenix Sproles. It was “a great throw (and) a great catch” for a touchdown, Hedberg recalled.
“He was able to, in that game, check into a run play against [Butler’s] pressure look, and he scored from about 50 yards out on a run play,” Hedberg said. “Those are things that he is able to do and process quickly at the line of scrimmage—not a lot of young quarterbacks are able to do that. He was able to do it in our system, and that was because of the prep time he puts in for every game. The thing about Trey that really stands out: He has a passion for the game. He really is a football junkie I would say. He really studies the game and it's important to him.”
It’s not just on the football field. Cornerback Marquise Bridges first saw Lance’s competitive nature on the basketball court. When the two were matched up on the gridiron for practice? Bridges nabbed just one interception over the course of their entire careers.
There’s a physicality about Lance; it’s a toughness that’s necessary for dual-threat quarterbacks who take some of the worst beatings outside of the pocket, on the run. During Friday’s events, however, he wanted to show a more complete picture and the culmination of his work over the last six months out of view from a national audience, or really any audience at all.
Lance was admittedly selfish with his time, working to be as clean as possible. He wanted to be polished and efficient with his movements, displaying his power and rhythm and showing evaluators his calm pocket presence. This was Lance’s first time in front of scouts in this type of setting. He dreamt about it in the more traditional sense, performing at the NFL combine, like his father did in 1992 as a cornerback out of Southwest Minnesota. But “everyone got cheated out of something” with the coronavirus, Lance said. So, he focused on what he can control: his attitude and effort. It was a childhood lesson that has brought him to the cusp of a lifelong goal.
“It started with my parents, all the way back growing up,” Lance said. “My parents were super realistic with me. They weren’t super strict, but at the same time, my actions and my words had to match up. So, I couldn’t say I wanted an opportunity to play professional football or Division I football if I was just doing the same thing everyone else was doing. For me, that’s where it started and I do love football so it hasn’t really been a hard thing to spend time and be that football junkie or spend as much time doing it as I possibly can.”
The conversation around the three quarterbacks following Lawrence is roughly the same. When breaking down the skill set of Justin Fields out of Ohio State, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and Lance, teams will obviously get different players. Now, it’s going to come down to scheme fit. If a team is looking for a passer with dual-threat abilities, who can successfully run play-action, it doesn’t have to look any further than Lance.
“He was so effective when he got out of the pocket and put pressure on the defense,” Hedberg said. “Each quarterback has a different clock in their head. They know that, ‘I got to get the ball out. Boom, boom, boom. Ball’s out. If I don't get the ball out, I run.’ That's kind of where he was.
“He has tremendous poise in the huddle and also in the pocket, and that was really a big plus for him. His clock in his head was pretty good that way, and when he tried to scramble or move away from pressure, he always kept his eyes downfield to make those throws downfield.”
Lance can effectively do it all. He’s fast in the open field, and when there’s no space, he creates it by breaking tackles, running through defenders with his 6-foot-3, 224-pound frame. He’s confident, yet humble; he’ll shake off a mistake in an instant and have a commanding presence in the huddle no matter what just happened on the previous drive—albeit, Lance has yet to face the adversity waiting for him in the NFL. His competition is bigger, stronger, and faster. But Lance knows when to pick his battles, and he doesn’t pick a battle he can’t win.
More than the football player, teams would get a really good human, a well-respected teammate and friend. That’s what stands out the most: Through this entire process—weighing the decision to opt-out and prepare for the draft, training through COVID-19 restrictions, and watching the team play without you—Lance’s character exceeds his football talent. He left a lasting legacy at NDSU; something he hopes to accomplish at the next level.
“I don’t believe that football is why I’m on earth,” Lance said, “but it is what I love to do and that’s going to be my platform for everything else.”