“I’ve got a stable and grounded crew of family and friends around me to keep me level-headed and grounded throughout this whole process,” Wentz said in our one-on-one interview.
That sort of calm, his true competitive spirit and DNA from the football gods have made Wentz the poster boy for the 2016 NFL draft.
He followed up a solid week in Mobile with an even more impressive week in the limelight at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He charmed everyone with his humility, rooted in his origins as a North Dakota kid who grew up wanting to lead the Bison to championships. The NFL, though, became a reality later in his career at NDSU.
“Well, it was always a dream [to end up in the NFL]. … It was a goal, but I was always just took one day at a time trying to get better,” Wentz said at the combine. “Obviously, I only started for two years in college. I knew I had to make the most of the opportunities. I thought I did the best I could.”
An avid outdoorsman who didn’t even have a Rivals.com recruiting page out of Century High School in Bismarck, Wentz now stands on the precipice of doing something only one player has done since 1996. In 2008, the Baltimore Ravens selected Delaware QB Joe Flacco with the 18th pick of the draft. As such, since 1996, Flacco was the only quarterback selected in the first round from a Division I-AA/FCS team.
Quarterbacks from non-FBS type programs have been successful in the NFL, but across the overall landscape, the successes aren’t as numerous as many believe. Everyone that follows the NFL knows the story of a quarterback from Northern Iowa who bagged groceries at Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa before becoming an NFL MVP — some guy named Kurt Warner. Tony Romo was a hidden gem that developed under Bill Parcells in Dallas as an undrafted college free agent. Prior to Flacco, the last quarterback from a Division I-AA/FCS school to be selected in the first round was in 1995 when Steve McNair was drafted by the Houston Oilers out of Alcorn State. Beyond those names, there’s not a litany of small school quarterbacks that had significant success in the NFL. When it comes to smaller school quarterbacks in the NFL, the names are bigger than the numbers.
There have been 26 quarterbacks drafted from the FCS division (or lower) and Flacco has been the only one to have sustained success. Now, he’s also been the only one selected in the first round. Two were drafted in the second round — Tarvaris Jackson out of Alabama State in 2006 and Jimmy Garoppolo out of Romo’s Eastern Illinois in 2014. Jackson has started only 34 games in nine years and Garoppolo is stuck behind ageless Tom Brady. Josh McCown was a third-round selection out of Sam Houston State and continues to collect a paycheck in the league but he was never the bona fide face-of-the-franchise starter in the league.
For every Flacco in this list of 26, there is a Kevin Daft (UC Davis, 1999 fifth-rounder) or a Giovanni Carmazzi (Hofstra, 2000 third-rounder) or an Ingle Martin (Furman, 2006 fifth-rounder). It’s not an illustrious list of quarterbacks, no matter the level of play. The 1-to-25 historical ratio doesn’t portend well for Wentz on his transition to the NFL. Furthermore, unlike Flacco who started his career at Pitt before transferring to Delaware, Wentz didn’t start his career at an FBS school, nor did he play much against FBS competition. He did lead the Bison back from behind in a 34-14 win over Iowa State on the road in the first start of his career. But, that was it for FBS competition until he went down to Mobile for the Senior Bowl and faced the best college football has to offer.
History doesn’t seem to favor Wentz, but he showed evaluators at the Senior Bowl and then again at the combine that might not matter to him. He knows there’s at least one guy that’s done it before.
“Especially a guy like Flacco,” Wentz said, “coming in really right away as a rookie and winning some ballgames, he showed that the adjustment can be made by special players for sure.”
Wentz has the attributes to be a special player and eventually be mentioned alongside Flacco, Romo and Warner, as opposed to Spurgeon Wynn, JaJuan Seider and Seth Burford.
When his name is called on Thursday night of draft weekend, Wentz will be No. 27 in a long line of small-school quarterbacks picked over the last 21 years. However, don’t expect him to find himself atop the small-school quarterback trash heap. Wentz has the character and the tools to beat the odds.