Meet Trey Lance, the Small-School Prospect Who Could Be QB1 in the 2021 Draft

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Trey Lance‘s season will be one game. Not seven games or 10, like players in most major conferences will attempt to play this fall. One.        

It’s not the 2020 the North Dakota State quarterback anticipated. Not after finishing the 2019 season with a perfect 16-0 record and an FCS national championship. Not after not throwing a single interception during that flawless season. Not after becoming one of the nation’s most coveted quarterback prospects in a matter of months.

But after North Dakota State’s conference, the Missouri Valley, canceled its season and the school replaced it with one lonely exhibition—this Saturday at home against Central Arkansas—this is the 2020 that Lance got. And for pro scouts trying to judge one of the most intriguing prospects in recent memory, the unique one-game showcase is better than nothing.

Just how intriguing? One NFL quarterback coach tells Bleacher Report he would have the redshirt sophomore as his top quarterback right now in the 2021 class if he declared. Not Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Trey Lance.

“He’s QB1 for me,” the coach says. “He’s everything you want in terms of arm talent, mobility and awareness.”

If the game is played as scheduled—a disclaimer necessary for every college football game this season—it will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern at the Fargodome, against an out-of-conference foe that did not appear on the Bison’s schedule until late August.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the only fans in attendance will be the players’ families. Despite the obscurity of a game, and despite being scheduled at a time when SEC play is ramping up, inquisitive NFL eyes will be glued to what amounts to a glorified televised scrimmage. As of Wednesday, North Dakota State expected 26 scouts representing 20 NFL teams to be at the game.

The statistics for this game, however, will count. And in the instance of Lance, that feels noteworthy. It means he could exit college for the NFL without having thrown a single interception. Not one.

A few things need to happen for this unheard-of achievement to be realized. For starters, Lance must keep his box score immaculate. And second, perhaps more significantly, he must declare for the NFL draft.

Last season, Lance threw for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He completed his statistical brilliance by running for 1,100 yards and 14 more touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. To top it off, he led the Bison to college football’s first 16-0 record since 1894.

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As a true freshman in 2018, Lance played in two games and threw only one pass. Despite his inexperience, he showcased his range of abilities in his first real taste of action last year. At 6’4″ and 226 pounds, Lance is a unique athlete. As his stats would indicate, he is a genuine dual threat. He is powerful, quick and has a strong throwing arm.

“Trey’s really raw, and he has a lot of raw potential,” says former North Dakota State wideout Jimmy Kepouros, who caught 30 passes last season. “I definitely think he could be even more than he even is right now. And that’s a scary thing. I know he’s working every day, and there’s potential, and his athletic ability can continue to skyrocket even more.”

This rawness is at least partially why Lance landed at North Dakota State rather than a Power Five program. It’s also why NFL teams are curious to project what the final product might look like.

At Marshall High in Minnesota, Lance did not possess the build of a prototypical NFL quarterback that he does today. It’s one of the primary reasons his recruitment never truly kicked into gear.

“He was sort of a late bloomer, size-wise, and that probably held back his recruiting,” Marshall head coach Terry Bahlmann says of his former QB. “Trey’s still only 20 right now, and he’ll be 20 at the draft. He graduated young. His recruiting would have been different if he was anything close to the size he is now.”

One Big Ten program wanted him only as a linebacker. Lance declined, set on playing quarterback. Another Big Ten school showed interest in him as a QB, but that interest never materialized into a scholarship offer.

Lance’s high school statistics weren’t jaw-dropping. According to MaxPreps, he scored 17 total touchdowns his senior year. He threw more than 20 passes in a game only once, playing in an offense that was dedicated to running the ball. Many of his games were also lopsided, which meant his nights often ended at halftime or shortly thereafter.

He was rated as a 3-star prospect and the 49th-best dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018 in 247Sports’ composite rankings. Northern Illinois wanted him. And late in the process, Boise State emerged as well. But Lance was set on North Dakota State.

“We thought he could do all the things that the other quarterbacks getting all the hype were doing,” Marshall adds. “But we just didn’t get the notoriety at the time. Looking at it now, it could not have worked out better for him.”

North Dakota State is not new to recruiting and developing NFL quarterbacks. Easton Stick, the quarterback Lance replaced, was selected in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2019 draft. In 2016, Carson Wentz left North Dakota State as a fifth-year senior and was selected with the No. 2 overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Lance’s situation is different, as is his skill set, which compares more closely to Bills quarterback Josh Allen, another small-school prospect whose physical traits were impossible to ignore. As such, the opinions of him going into his one-game season will vary wildly. The opinions that come out of it perhaps will even more so.

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Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, is largely watching North Dakota State to scout upperclassmen. But even while watching Bison offensive tackle Dillon Radunz, one of the top linemen in the country and a potential first-round draft pick, Lance has his attention.

“You can’t miss his talent when you’re watching the other guys,” Nagy says.

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report’s lead NFL draft writer, is just as fascinated.

“He is the only quarterback who can make a run at Trevor Lawrence,” Miller says. “Unfortunately, we won’t get to see that during this college football season. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is drafted into a situation where he’s able to sit, learn and have a huge breakout late in his rookie season or as a sophomore. He’s just really special in terms of the all-around package.”

Others aren’t sold just yet. Like most everyone else in the profession, they are curious. And in many ways, the varying opinions only add to Lance’s intrigue.

“He’s clearly talented and has good arm talent,” one NFL scout tells B/R. “But I look at the postseason last year, and they weren’t leaning on his arm. He threw 10 passes in the national title game. You’re going to pick him in the first 10 or 15 picks after he has played one season? If you take him, you’re going to need to develop him. He’s not a guy you play right away.”

Good or bad, one game won’t cement his status in this draft class—a draft class we don’t know if he’ll even be a part of.

But the buzz that has emerged throughout the offseason is inescapable. The fact that there are questions and unknowns don’t hamper the conversation. In many ways, they drive it forward. And a one-game season for a player so ripe with possibility is, in many ways, a perfect storm.

If he so desires, Lance can stay at North Dakota State well beyond this season. As a redshirt sophomore, in a year where eligibility across the sport has been essentially frozen, he could play in Fargo for three more seasons if he chooses. And to reiterate, Lance has yet to publicly announce anything as it pertains to his future. One game will not determine his decision.

But Saturday could also be his final game for North Dakota State. Lance could ride the current wave into the predraft process—a process that will undoubtedly dissect his every throw and measurable.

That time is coming. But first, there is work to be done. There is an immaculate, interception-less stat line to potentially carry forward. There are impressions to be made. Minds to change. No matter the opponent or the awkwardness of the stakes attached to a game that didn’t exist six weeks ago, it’ll feel significant in the moment.

There is still a season to be played—one that is set to start and end in a matter of hours. And from there, let the intrigue flourish.

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