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Sources: Potential top-five NFL prospect getting surprise showcase game this fall

Pete Thamel
·7 min read
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Trey Lance, the supernova quarterback prospect from North Dakota State who projects as a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, will get a showcase game this fall.

North Dakota State recently signed a contract to play Central Arkansas on Oct. 3 in Fargo, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports. It will mark the only game the three-time defending FCS national champions will play this fall. Earlier this month, North Dakota State announced it would “not play football in the fall of 2020.”

The reversal for a lone game this fall gives NFL scouts a chance to spy Lance, NDSU’s redshirt sophomore quarterback who is shaping up to be one of the most unique quarterback prospects in draft history. As a redshirt freshman at NDSU, Lance went 16-0 as a starter, threw 28 touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I’d be shocked if he’s not a top-15 pick,” an NFL area scout who has watched Lance on film extensively this summer told Yahoo Sports. “I think he’s going to be right up in the top five with Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence.”

The game allows North Dakota State to essentially have full “spring practice” in the fall, with 20-hour practice weeks. (The schools who are not playing this fall are limited to 12 hours.) Instead of NDSU’s “spring practice” culminating with a scrimmage against each other, the Bison will play Central Arkansas, a formidable FCS foe.

In NFL circles, the lone North Dakota State date of the fall will become one of the most scrutinized college football games of the year. NFL scouts expect Lance to enter the conversation with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL draft. Some have projected he could jump one or both of them.

Trey Lance of the North Dakota State Bison looks to pass the ball against James Madison during the Division I FCS Football Championship on Jan. 11, 2020. (Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Trey Lance of the North Dakota State Bison looks to pass the ball against James Madison during the Division I FCS Football Championship on Jan. 11, 2020. (Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

It’s still unknown if scouts will be allowed into the game, since the deal was just signed. That decision will likely come down to local ordinances, but there’s an expectation for NDSU to be as accommodating as the rules will allow them. Regardless, the game will be closely analyzed, as it’s expected to be the only football game this season that Lance plays in before declaring for the NFL draft.

NDSU expects to play a slate of games in the spring, including its full Missouri Valley Conference schedule. While Lance has yet to declare his intentions, it would be stunning to NFL front-office personnel for a player of his caliber to play in a spring season that appears destined to clash with the draft process. (The draft can be pushed back to as late as June 2 and the dates of the scouting combine and Senior Bowl could move to accommodate the spring season.)

“You always want to see quarterbacks throw live, and this would be the only chance to see him throw [in college this year],” said an NFL director of player personnel.

Scouts rarely spend a lot of time and energy on players who aren’t draft eligible, which is why teams just began digging in on Lance this summer. So when an NFL scout went to a North Dakota State game last season, he was floored seeing Lance live for the first time. “I saw him throw one football and I immediately started texting our guys, asking, ‘Who the f--- is that?’”

The scouting world soon caught up, as Lance led the Bison to a national title, clinching the championship with a 44-yard touchdown run. The scout who projected Lance as a top-15 pick said what impressed him was Lance’s ability to go through his progressions.

“There’s a difference if a quarterback is actually reading a defense as opposed to throwing to open lanes,” the scout said. “He can progress through the first, second and third read and then throw a wheel route to the back out of the backfield. He seems like he’s ultra-smart.”

Two North Dakota State quarterbacks have been drafted in the past five years, as Carson Wentz went No. 2 overall in 2016 and the Chargers drafted Easton Stick in the fifth round in 2019. Former NDSU coach Chris Klieman left for Kansas State after the 2018 season, and Matt Entz seamlessly carried on the winning by debuting as head coach with an undefeated championship run.

Trey Lance of the North Dakota State Bison runs the ball against James Madison during the Division I FCS Football Championship on Jan. 11, 2020. (Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Trey Lance of the North Dakota State Bison runs the ball against James Madison during the Division I FCS Football Championship on Jan. 11, 2020. (Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

As a first-year starter playing for first-year coordinator Tyler Roehl, Lance rushed for 1,100 yards, threw for 2,786 yards and completed 66.9 percent of his passes. He won the Walter Payton award for the best offensive player in the FCS. North Dakota State finished in the top 10 in the FCS in scoring offense (37.3) and total offense (469.5). Perhaps most impressive for a first-year starter, the Bison set an FCS record with just six team turnovers.

The move allows Entz an opportunity for both player development and retention. It may also help keep some of North Dakota State’s high-end players – including 6-foot-6, 290-pound senior offensive tackle Dillon Radunz – from entering the NCAA transfer portal. Additionally, it allows seniors who want to depart after the semester one last chance to play in front of a home crowd at the FargoDome.

NDSU’s history of winning, and player identification and development has led to it becoming a popular poaching target. In April, NDSU lost All-American linebacker Jabril Cox due to a transfer to LSU. The additional game provides some clarity for what the fall will look like and give incentive for veteran players to stick around for another potential championship run.

North Dakota State has won three straight FCS national titles and eight of the past nine, one of the most impressive runs of dominance in college football history. It’ll carry a 37-game winning streak into the Central Arkansas game.

NDSU hopes to play a slate of games in the spring. (The NCAA has also announced that fall championships, including the FBS playoffs, will move to the spring.) It won’t play Oregon, however, the original opening game on its schedule. The Pac-12’s initial decision to go conference-only canceled that high-profile showcase.

Instead, Central Arkansas will provide a solid FCS foe. Central Arkansas went 9-4 last season, upset Western Kentucky in the opening week and reached the FCS playoffs. (Senior defensive back Robert Rochell, who had five interceptions last year, is also an NFL prospect.)

Central Arkansas’ schedule will offer it unprecedented exposure, as its game with Austin Peay on Saturday in Montgomery, Alabama, is the kickoff of the college football season and will be shown on ESPN. It plays UAB the following Thursday night, Sept. 3, as one of two games that night.

The NDSU game promises to receive an unusual amount of exposure because of Lance’s presence. It wouldn’t be surprising if a national television outlet picked it up considering NDSU’s history of recent dominance and Lance’s prodigious potential.

“I think he’s a really good prospect, just watching his throwing motion, his accuracy and arm strength,” said veteran Illinois State coach Brock Spack, who faced Lance twice last season. “It’s rare to see a prospect like that from the FCS. Most of them are second-day guys that kind of blow up their senior year. This kid has been good right from the start.”

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