Trey Lance's stunning NFL draft rise reaches finish line with a nervous wait in the green room

In vast annals of NFL draft history, there’s no precedent for the meteoric rise of North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

He redshirted his true freshman season in 2018 in Fargo before authoring as close to a perfect season as we’ve ever seen in college football. Lance led the Bison in the 2019 season to an FCS national title with a 16-0 record, throwing 28 touchdowns, no interceptions and running for 14 more.

From there, in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators, things have been perfectly imperfect. COVID-19 meant that North Dakota State ended up playing a majority of its schedule this spring, which left Lance a lone fall game to play. Lance threw his only collegiate career interception against Central Arkansas in NDSU’s lone game this past fall, struggled with accuracy and began moving out of his campus apartment the next day to begin preparing for the NFL draft.

As the draft approaches Thursday, it’s fitting that Lance’s unprecedented ascent leads to the night’s biggest wild card. Lance, 20, could go as high as No. 3 to San Francisco. He could also slip into the double-digit range, as he promises to lead the night in green room camera cutaways.

No one is more intrigued by the whole thing than Lance, who in a matter of months went from relatively unknown FCS star to a prospect who looms as compelling as he is divisive.

“I still don’t know where I’m going to be [picked],” Lance said with a chuckle in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think I will. Hopefully I’ll have somewhat of an idea when I get into the green room. I’m excited to see what happens.”

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance warms up at the school's football NFL Pro Day Friday, March, 12, 2021, in Fargo, North Dakota. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton- King)
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is in the running to be the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft, which begins on Thursday night in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton- King)

Does Lance end up as Kyle Shanahan’s latest protegee in San Francisco? Probably not, as Mac Jones still appears to be the target there.

Does he squirm in the green room in Cleveland into the teens? Does a team like the Washington Football Team, Raiders, Patriots or Bears trade up for him? Those issues will loom large after the third pick, as the drama of Lance’s landing spot will quickly hijack the coronations of Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

“Trey Lance is indicative of this year’s draft,” said former NFL team executive Mike Tannenbaum, who works for ESPN and the 33rd Team. “There’s a lot of variance for players, including Trey Lance, because of incomplete information, opt-outs and in his case a single game to evaluate from last year.”

What can the team who drafts Lance expect?

He’s so competitive that he quickly tired of golf when he started hacking at Top Golf the past few months, as he couldn’t immediately master it. He gets teased by his friends for his TikTok dancing, paints Air Force 1s in his spare time and has a peculiar beverage affinity. “We joke about his passion for milk with every meal,” said Quincy Avery, the private quarterback trainer, with a laugh.

Avery worked out Lance a majority of the past seven months and jokes that Lance has the presence of a 35-year-old. He’s earnest, precise and prepares for workouts like they’re playoff games. Yet he’s loose and engaging enough that no quarterback is more beloved by Avery’s 4-year-old daughter, Quest.

“The first thing I tell teams about is his maturity,” said Avery, who will be among those with Lance in the draft green room. “Then his football intelligence. That last thing I talk about is him as a player.”

Lance is a 6-foot-4, 224-pound quarterback with enough athleticism that Anthony Hobgood, his trainer at EXOS, says his drill work compares favorably to the NFL receivers he trains there.(If Lance ran a 40-yard dash, Hobgood estimates he’d have done it in the high 4.5s.)

Lance’s character, personality and football IQ have emerged as strengths to the teams that have studied him.

He has a strong right arm, which he showed off in both of his pro days. The NFL concerns loom with the collision of the lack of high-end competition and worries that he hasn’t needed to throw players open on a consistent basis like NFL quarterbacks need to. (NDSU entered the 2021 spring season on a 38-game win streak, which means Lance faces the same First World problem of Mac Jones with his receivers being too open because of the talent gap. So Lance’s 67 percent completion rate in 2019 is viewed through a prism of skepticism.)

While his college competition was inferior, Lance’s college preparation may be the best among quarterbacks in the draft. His work at the line of scrimmage at NDSU and the autonomy over line protections has NFL team executives excited.

Lance took about 60 percent of his snaps under center, which gives him experience above a majority of draft prospects. That under center snap percentage is something out of college football in 2001, not 2021. He’s also experienced huddling, something many modern quarterbacks don’t do in college.

Amid a grand tour of workouts, tutors and more than a dozen Zooms with NFL teams the past seven months, Lance spent two days with former Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander for a crash course on line protections. Alexander, who works as a private line coach from high school to the NFL, taught him more than 20 protections – 8-man, 7-man, 6-man and 5-man – in an attempt to overwhelm Lance the first day. The second day, Lance had to teach them all back to Alexander, and he aced every one.

“I’d give him an ‘A,’” Alexander said. “He had poise. He has a very even and outgoing personality, which I think will help him lead. I feel very confident that he’ll be a terrific leader in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, which is so overlooked and so important.”

In working with Avery during his seven months off, Lance focused on refining his throwing motion and generating more power from his lower half. With everything going to be sped up at the next level, Avery focused on helping Lance with a quicker and “more repeatable” throwing motion.

Lance also spent nearly three weeks with quarterback trainer John Beck and his team at 3DQB in Southern California. (Lance’s close friend and former teammate, Easton Stick of the Chargers, also trains with Beck.)

Beck became impressed a few days in when Lance challenged him: “I want the hard feedback. Don’t sugarcoat it. Give it to me straight up.” Beck chuckles: “I really liked that.”

When asked to demystify the riddle that NFL teams face when evaluating Lance, Beck said he really couldn’t. There’s parts of Lance’s game that need to grow – that includes things that can’t be replicated like playing in tight games. Beck came away generally impressed, predicting that Lance has “some really good football in the NFL in front of him.”

The aura of mystery remains. “I don’t know if I can demystify him,” Beck said. “There will always be those questions NFL teams have. He’s played in 17 games. They have one game to evaluate within the last football season. His only full season was that sophomore year. I don’t know if there’s anything to demystify him.”

At least Lance has experience with anxious moments recently. He has spent much of this spring watching his former North Dakota State teammates play on without him and compile a 6-2 record.

“I’m still trying to decide if it’s harder to watch on TV or sitting up in the box during games,” Lance said. “It’s just hard to watch because it’s my guys. I feel like I’m part of the team, I played with every guy in that locker room.”

NDSU plays Sam Houston State in the second round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday. By then, Lance will have jetted off to his new NFL city and have dove into the new life that has been thrust on him and yet is arriving frustratingly slow. As he reflects on the ascent, Lance is more grateful for the journey than nervous about the destination.

“I'm just thankful at this point,” he said. “I’m super excited and super blessed to even have this opportunity.”

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