What Trey Lance’s final college game tells us about his NFL future

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Doug Farrar
·4 min read
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When evaluating quarterbacks, it’s just as important — if not more important — to figure out how they deal with adversity as opposed to watching a bunch of highlights and going with all the good stuff. Especially in the transition from the NCAA to the NFL, it doesn’t matter how great the quarterback in question is; at some point, the NFL will take his lunch money and make him look like the rookie he is.

In the case of North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, who completed 192 of 287 passes for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns, and no interceptions in his one full season in 2019, that particular evaluative opportunity came on October 3, 2020, when the Bison played their only game of the fall season due to COVID concerns. In that game, Lance completed 15 of 30 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and the only interception he threw in his collegiate career. While he also ran 15 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns — and proved his “quarterback who plays like a linebacker” mentality…

…he also presented concerns for those who had already punched his ticket as a top-15 draft pick, and perhaps also provided confirmation for those who were more hesitant about his professional future.

While Lance was balky and frenetic at times, it wasn’t all on him. The Central Arkansas Bears managed to show Lance a lot of the stuff he’s going to see in the NFL — coverage switches from pre-snap to post-snap, match coverage over the middle, aggressive converging coverage outside, and blitz looks that forced him to alter his protection calls. It was a game plan not unlike what you’d see from, say, Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on a week-to-week basis.

Bison associate head coach and quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said this past week that Lance was responsible for calling a lot of the protections and adjusting to blitzes at the line of scrimmage, and in this game, it didn’t always work. When you have seven-on-six, you’d better get the ball out of your hand more quickly than this. Especially when you’re facing blitz as much as Lance did — per Pro Football Focus, he was blitzed on 20 of his 34 dropbacks. Now, he did complete 10 of 16 passes for 113 yards and both of his touchdowns against the blitz, but he also threw that lone interception in that particular circumstance.

Lance seemed especially jittery on throws to the middle of the field, and this deep throw with less than a minute left in the first half was almost an interception. Overall, Lance attempted six throws of 20 or more air yards, most were over the middle, none were completed, and by my count, two were one step away from being intercepted.

Lance’s actual interception came with 11:15 left in the third quarter, and here’s how he explained it to me on Friday in his Zoom media availability after his pro day:

“The pick? It was play-action, and I was just late. It was slap seam, with a tight end wheel coming behind it, and I was just late on it. That’s all that happened. I saw the safety and tried to pull the trigger just one or two seconds too late.”

It was a mystifying decision, because there are other examples of Lance not only discerning safety placement, but looking safeties off to get the throw he wants.

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Lance did have the Bison ahead 32-28 late in the game; he threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to fullback Hunter Luepke with 7:35 remaining off a coverage bust, and then, with just over three minutes left in the game, he made his most crucial throw — a great 15-yard out to receiver Braylon Henderson that preserved the drive and eventually led to a 13-yard Luepke touchdown run which put the game away with a 39-28 final. As much as he struggled at times to get his game together, it was impressive to see him with the right kind of short-term amnesia, and the ability to make the tough throw at the end of a difficult outing.

“As far as the deep out — we call that a “circus” route, and [Henderson] got free access with one-on-one man coverage, and I’m betting on my guy to win every single time,” Lance recalled. “He made a great catch on that, as well.”

So, a mixed bag, which is likely what Lance will provide at first when he hits the next level, because the next level has a tendency to hit back. There’s no question that Lance has all the attributes you want in a modern NFL quarterback, but as this game showed, there are also things he needs to develop before we go about crowning him to any significant degree.