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Trey Lance is one of the draft’s bigger mysteries, but he has been well prepared for the NFL

North Dakota State's Trey Lance didn't start many games in college, but his understanding of the game has NFL teams intrigued. (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

On the surface, Trey Lance should not be the kind of quarterback an NFL team wants in the draft’s first round.

He’s just 20 years old, and despite being 6-foot-4 and fast with a powerful arm, he started just 17 games at North Dakota State, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, and threw for more than 200 yards in only four of them. In the one game he played in the fall, he threw for an unimpressive 149 yards.

Among the criticisms of his game are inconsistent accuracy and a tendency to run too much. A few months ago, after hearing so much pre-draft acclaim for Lance, a former NFL general manager watched the one game Lance played in the fall (North Dakota State didn’t have a full 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic and instead played this spring) and came away unimpressed.

“I don’t get it,” the ex-general manager said.

But in an NFL draft filled with uncertainty following a broken college football season, there are suddenly a lot of coaches and evaluators who think they do “get” Lance, seeing a player who might be the league’s next great quarterback if he’s given a season to practice and learn. Some have suggested his combination of speed and arm strength makes him like Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah compares him to another league MVP, the late Steve McNair. Projections have him going as high as third in the draft, which begins Thursday.

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They base this belief on more than just his ability to throw 70 yards or run a blazing 40-yard dash. They believe in Lance because of his mind and because, despite his lack of experience and exposure, he appears more ready in terms of maturity and preparation than most college quarterbacks.

“He’s incredibly intelligent,” Jeremiah said during a recent conference call. “I’ve spent time with him, and I’ve talked to a bunch of teams that have spent time with him and have been kind of blown away through the interview process with him. The character, the work ethic, all that stuff is exceptional.”

The demands placed on NFL quarterbacks are immense. Play names can be 10 or more words long. Defenses are loaded with clever disguises, designed to lure unsuspecting passers into mistakes. When Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold spoke of “seeing ghosts” early in his career with the New York Jets, he was expressing a sensation felt by many young quarterbacks.

More and more, teams are looking first for quarterbacks who can process a tremendous amount of information quickly and make fast decisions. Lance, a lightly recruited quarterback and safety from Marshall, Minn., who did not draw any interest as a quarterback from big colleges, might be exactly the player they are looking for.

“He had responsibility in terms of protections,” Jeremiah said. “He had responsibility in terms of checks. So he had a lot more on his plate than most guys, especially in his first year as a starter.”

North Dakota State already has sent quarterbacks to the NFL. In the past five years, it has had two of its quarterbacks drafted — the Indianapolis Colts’ Carson Wentz (the No. 2 pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016) and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Easton Stick (166th in 2019) — and a big reason for that is the program’s associate head coach and passing game coordinator, Randy Hedberg. A small-college quarterback who started four games for the 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hedberg demands a lot of his quarterbacks, challenging them with concepts more common in the professional game than in college.

The North Dakota State offense is a West Coast scheme, heavy on the long play names found in a lot of NFL offenses. Hedberg said he wants his quarterbacks to “verbalize” those plays in the huddle, a departure from the no-huddle approach taken by many college teams of having everyone look to the sideline at a sign held up by an assistant coach. It forces his passers to look at the other players and repeat the play to them — a small facet of leadership that many young quarterbacks struggle to master at the next level.

Hedberg also requires his quarterbacks to call protections, identifying at the line of scrimmage all of the potential pass rushers and making sure they are blocked. This, too, is something many college quarterbacks aren’t asked to do and must take time to learn when they get to the NFL.

“I want them to know who’s not going to be blocked,” Hedberg said. “If we have a five-man protection and they bring six, he’s got to know who that sixth guy is so he can throw hot off that individual.”

While many college offenses are filled with plays on which the quarterback only looks for open receivers on one side of the field, North Dakota State’s offense — like those in the NFL — is loaded with “full-field throws” that demand the quarterback scans the entire field when going through his checklist of options on each play.

Lance responded well to those challenges, Hedberg said. The coach still marvels at how well Lance read the defense in his first college start in 2019, recognizing a looming blitz and checking into a running play for himself that he turned into a 61-yard touchdown.

“Not a lot of young quarterbacks are able to do that,” Hedberg said.

And while the system has given Lance an early understanding of things he will have to do in the NFL, those who have worked with him say the reason they expect him to do well in the pros is how hard he studies, describing him as far more diligent about his preparation than most his age. This spring, while working with quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery, Lance pulled out the tablet he used to study opponents. In addition to film clips of defenses, Lance had photographed pages and pages of notes taken in intricate detail from his meetings and film sessions with North Dakota State coaches — something Avery sees only from the NFL quarterbacks he trains.

What impressed Avery the most, however, was the insight that Lance had into the defenses he faced, examining not just how a cornerback might position himself when he covers a receiver but how that cornerback plays in relation to the other players in the secondary.

“The way he sees things and the attention to nuance and detail is unique,” Avery said. “He’s more advanced. There are NFL guys who don’t prepare as hard as he does.”

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Lance seems to be obsessed with detail, even texting Avery each night before workouts to get the name of the field they would be using so he could examine the best routes to take for the next morning. Not that he had to worry about being late — Lance was always early to his workouts.

“I definitely detail my work. My preparation is something that separates me,” Lance said after his pro day in March. “Attention to detail at the line of scrimmage is something that I feel is one of my strengths.”

People who know Lance point to his father, Carlton, a former defensive back at Southwest Minnesota State and in the CFL and the World League of American Football, as having a huge impact on his development. Lance said in March that both his father and mother, Angie, played a big role. His parents “were always super realistic with me,” he said, telling him that his “words and actions had to match up.”

Carlton trained his son in the early years and in high school, and Hedberg and Avery both said Carlton taught Trey to look at the defense through the eyes of a defensive player — similar to how Bill Belichick coached a young Tom Brady. Doing so often gives a quarterback a deeper understanding of what a pass rusher or defensive back might do, looking for tiny tells in their body language.

“He can process at the line of scrimmage as quickly as anyone I’ve coached,” Hedberg said. “He can see protections and coverages very well.”

Those are things that might not be expected from a small-school quarterback with limited experience, but for Lance, they’re a big part of what has NFL teams paying attention.

“It’s going to be a bit more complex at the NFL level, obviously,” Hedberg said. “But I think he’ll learn that as he progresses through his time in the NFL.”