Exclusive: Top QB prospect Trey Lance declares for 2021 NFL draft

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is declaring for the 2021 NFL draft, he told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. Lance’s decision means he’ll be leaving school and not playing in the upcoming Bison season, which has been postponed to the spring of 2021.

The decision continues one of the most dizzying career ascents in recent football history, as just 15 months ago Lance was an unknown redshirt freshman in a heated battle for the starting quarterback job in Fargo.

Lance is a redshirt sophomore who played the lone game of North Dakota State’s fall season on Saturday. He threw for two touchdowns against Arkansas State in that game, ran for two others and the victory capped his career at 17-0 as a starting quarterback.

“It’s a little bit mind-boggling for me,” Lance told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “It’s been a heck of a ride for the last year. I’ve learned a ton, I’ve grown a ton as a person and a football player. I honestly have to give all the credit to the guys around me, to the strength staff and coaching staff and guys I’ve played with.”

Lance’s decision to go to the NFL makes him perhaps the most intriguing prospect in the entire 2021 NFL draft. Lance, 20, will go to the league after having thrown just one interception as a college player. His streak of 307 passes without an interception ended Saturday in the 39-28 comeback win. He finishes his career with a 30-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, two national titles (one as the starter) and having rushed for 18 touchdowns.

Lance is a 6-foot-4, 228-pound dual-threat prospect from Marshall, Minnesota, who projects as a sure-fire first-round pick in the upcoming draft. He’s grouped with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields at the top of this year’s high-end quarterback draft class.

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance celebrates a touchdown run against Central Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 3. (AP)
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance celebrates a touchdown run against Central Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 3. (AP)

Lance informed his coaches of his decision on Monday and told the North Dakota State players in a team meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

“This was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, without a doubt,” Lance said. “It comes down to me feeling ready and praying about it as much I can and feeling like I have a solid handle on everything.”

Lance upheld a great quarterback tradition at North Dakota State. He backed up Easton Stick, who finished his career as the all-time winningest FCS quarterback (49-3). Stick followed Carson Wentz, who went No. 2 overall in the 2016 NFL draft. Lance leaned on both for advice on his decision, including picking Wentz’s brain by phone.

Lance said he “absolutely” thinks he can challenge Fields and Lawrence to be the top quarterback picked in draft. He said he’s “not naïve” that they have the advantage of playing the whole season and that he respects both of them. But he’s ready to show what he can do at the NFL scouting combine. “I’ve very confident in myself and my ability both from a mental and physical standpoint,” Lance said.

The early read from NFL scouts is that the 2021 draft could end up unfolding similar to 2020 when three quarterbacks went in the first six picks — Joe Burrow (1), Tua Tagovailoa (5) and Justin Herbert (6).

There are myriad variables in the upcoming months, but at this point it would be shocking if Lance wasn’t picked in the top 20 and surprising if he wasn’t picked in the top 10. Lance isn’t expected to leap Clemson’s Lawrence, but some scouts have him on a similar plane as Fields. (Others have him as the third quarterback.)

Lance listed a handful of factors that weighed into his decision. From a draft perspective, he wanted to be certain he’s considered a first-round pick. From an NDSU program perspective, he said knowing that his close friend and backup quarterback Zeb Noland didn’t transfer and will be the starter was “really important to me” and “made my decision a little bit easier.” He also wanted the time to train with the hopes to “separate myself” in the draft process.

Lance said he made the decision with a heavy heart because of all the relationships that he built during his nearly three years in Fargo.

“It’s been everything to me, not just as a football player but as a human being,” Lance said. “North Dakota State taught me how to be a man. It’s where I grew up and made my biggest growth as a human, not just in football, but as a person.

“I care so much about these guys and this program. I wanted to leave this program in better hands, leave it better than when I started.”

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after beating James Madison 28-20 in the FCS championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after beating James Madison 28-20 in the FCS championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Lance stressed that he desperately wanted to play this season with his teammates, which is why he practiced all fall and played in the lone game against Central Arkansas.

But the FCS spring schedule is both untenable and potentially unhealthy. The FCS playoff championship game is scheduled for May 15, which is more than two weeks after the scheduled date of the NFL draft. For a program like North Dakota State that has won eight of the past nine national titles, that’s a difficult scheduling conflict to overlook.

It could also mean playing more than 35 games — counting preseason — in a calendar year. “There’s a risk that goes into playing 30-plus games in one season,” Lance said. “That’s a lot of games regardless who is playing. That’s a big part of it as well.”

Part of the reason that Lance is prepared at this early age — he won’t be 21 until May — is the intricate offensive system they ran in Fargo. NDSU quarterback coach Randy Hedberg was also the position coach for Wentz and Stick, who is a Chargers backup after being picked in the fifth round.

NDSU coordinator Tyler Roehl’s offense operates primarily out of a huddle, and the carryover to the NFL is much more than many college offenses. Lance’s skills are generally similar to Deshaun Watson, which makes him an ideal fit for a modern NFL that increasingly values quarterback mobility.

“We play a brand of football that’s similar to the NFL,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz told Yahoo Sports. “We’re under center, checking to the run game at the line of scrimmage and changing protections. We put a lot on the quarterback’s plate, much like the NFL. That experience should lend Trey to have some success early in his career and make the transition a lot easier.”

NDSU had 11 players on opening-day NFL rosters, which shows that translation transcends the quarterback position.

Entz told Yahoo this week that it has been impossible to quantify what Lance means to the program.

“For him to do the things he did at age 19 [last year] speaks to his maturity and willingness to learn and the humility he has,” Entz said. “Humble individuals are generally going to want to learn and continue to learn, and we’ve seen that through the entire process.”

As Lance leaves NDSU, he’s grateful for his time there.

“The people in the Fargo community and the people in our organization and athletic department showed how much they care about me as a football player and a person,” Lance said. “I’d advocate for anyone who wants to play at the next level, if you understand what our program is about, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t come here to play.”

(Read more about NDSU's Trey Lance here.)

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