Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
He arrives without a posse. No former coaches, girlfriend or even his agent. It’s just him, back alone in the city that propelled him into the national spotlight as a student-athlete for North Dakota State University. He will spend the week in his college town after a two-month media cycle that has deemed him one of the most vaunted quarterbacks in the NFL Draft. He’s humbled, excited and possibly worn out from the travel caused by the newly- found fame. He’s been to Irvine, Calif., where he trained with former pros, to Orlando, Fla., where he met with coaching legend Jon Gruden. He also made stops at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Ind.
He appears at peace to be back in Fargo, where the snow has made its surprise mid-March appearance and where he can work out back in his original weight room with Bison strength coach Jim Kramer and Ryan Napoli. It’s like his college days and things seem to be back to normal, even if it’s just for a moment.
For once, no one is around him. There’s no camera swinging over his head as he slings passes from sideline to sideline like it did in Indianapolis. There’s no Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner 10 yards behind him breaking down his every move like he was at the NFL Combine. There’s no hungry press group waiting for him, eager to be fed his latest thoughts on his position in the 100th-something edition of Mel Kiper’s mock draft. No, today, he’s looking forward to grabbing lunch downtown and shooting his shotgun at the range, something he hasn’t been able to do in quite awhile.
Former NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz’s life is changing in front of our eyes and he’s well aware of what’s happening. Besides his Twitter mentions blowing up and the occasional mock draft he accidentally sees while watching his favorite shows on NFL Network and ESPN, all he wants to do is keep football, football, and allow the glitz and glamour run its course as he gets ready for next season. No matter whose jersey he’s wearing.
“My mentality is, don’t make it bigger than it needs to be,” said Wentz, as he sits in the basement of a building in Downtown Fargo, awaiting another photo shoot. “It’s just football. To the outside world it seems crazier but to me, it’s just: keep playing ball.”
And what comes with his rising stock are the hundreds of interviews that are requested that never get past his agent. The countless autograph requests while he leaves from a throwing session in the Fargodome. There’s the never-ending string of articles and blogs breaking down every part of his college career, life and workouts across all corners of the Internet.
But the person who signed his letter of intent to play at NDSU in 2011 is still the same person plastered over cable sports network shows in 2016.
The doubters have been abundant. Football pundits from across the country have critiqued every aspect of his game. And the most scrutinized aspect of it all is something Wentz had no control over: playing in the FCS.
“You just have a chip on your shoulder and you go into it thinking that everyone thinks you can’t play because where you’re from and this and that,” Wentz said. “I’ve definitely had a chip on my shoulder but at the same time, I know I can play. I know what I’m capable of doing, so I just went out there and did my thing. The Senior Bowl, the combine, I didn’t stress out about it or make it any bigger than it needed to be.”
His quarterback coach for the last two seasons at NDSU is also getting frustrated with the questions doubting the legitimacy of the FCS game.
“I went through this too, coming from a small school myself. When outside people that aren’t familiar with FCS football, they take shots because of the level of competition,” Randy Hedberg, a former Minot State and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, said. “I say if a kid dominates at that level, I think he can dominate at any level and I think Carson Wentz is that way. He was able to shine at the FCS level the last two years and he’s getting better and better. I think the thing that’s important to know is that he has a very high ceiling, and I think he’s going to continue to improve because he’s extremely coachable.”
The list of quarterbacks who have successfully made the jump from FCS to the NFL isn’t very big. Most notably, Delaware’s Joe Flacco, Eastern Illinois’s Tony Romo and Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick have made the jump and thrived in the League. Romo, who went undrafted, was somewhat of an anomaly. He was signed in 2004 and didn’t make his debut until 2006. Flacco, on the other hand, was a first-round pick, 18th overall to the Baltimore Ravens, in 2008. He wasn’t the star in his rookie season, but Flacco led the Ravens to an 11-5 record and road on the coattails of a dominating defense to the AFC Championship game before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“You just look at the body of work of the player. You watch. You get a chance to see his physical tools, and then you match that with an opportunity to sit down and talk with him and judge what his maturity level is,” Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the NFL Combine about scouting FCS-level players. “You just cannot sit there and say a guy cannot play in the National Football League if he played at a smaller division.”
Although playing in the FCS has many pundits turned off, there is a group that helped Wentz’s rise to the national stage because it’s somewhat of a hipster story. Many of the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft are from schools that produce perennial NFL talent. When you’re talking about players from the likes of California, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Memphis, a school like North Dakota State tends to stick out in the minds of scouts and analysts searching for something different.
Zach Wentz, Wentz’s older brother, remembers his dad fielding phone calls from agents last summer, sensing scouts had finally seen his brother’s tape.
“We thought he’d have an opportunity, whether that was as an undrafted free agent, you know, just because of the tools,” Zach Wentz said. “By the end of last year, then we started thinking as a family maybe draft selection if we’re lucky. I’d have to ask him (Wentz’s dad) for specifics, but I know it took up a lot of his time for a while in the summer and early into this season as well. He handled all the calls and he narrowed the list down of his own choices and then Carson made the final choice.”
Scouts Inc., NFL Draft Insider Kevin Weidl first remember seeing Wentz when he was scouting John Crockett before the NDSU-Illinois State FCS Championship over a year ago.
“I believe it was a playoff game against South Dakota State,” said Weidl. “You saw the size, you saw the athleticism, the arm strength and you had a good feel for him, and then I scouted him in the preseason and I gave him a second-round grade going into the year.”
NFL Network host James Koh works with a team of analysts and former NFL players every day in Los Angeles. He remembers hearing Wentz’s name more and more after his performance against Jacksonville State in this year’s FCS Championship game.
“I work with a lot of fantasy football hipsters,” Koh said. “They don’t get too excited about guys that are really well-known so when they get a Carson Wentz, North Dakota State, they say, ‘Oh really? My radar is up.’ They like what they see on tape.”
The momentum has carried through the winter, and Wentz’s body of work has many NFL scouts clamoring and draft analysts giddy about Wentz’s potential to be a top-five pick in this year’s draft. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, Lance Zierlein and Charles Davis join ESPN’s Todd McShay and Kiper as having Wentz as high as second overall to the Cleveland Browns in April.
The Browns acquired Robert Griffin III just minutes after Wentz’s Pro Day and the likelihood of Wentz going to Cleveland seems grim. If you ask Koh, not going to Cleveland might be the best situation possible for a rookie like Wentz.
“Playing UNI or Montana, it’s not the same as playing the Steelers or Ravens,” Koh said. “I think he needs a little bit of an adjustment period and the biggest thing for him is, we can talk so much about young quarterbacks, but the one thing you don’t know and will never show up on tape and you’ll never see at the combine is how these dudes are going to respond to adversity.”
What Koh might not know is the amount of adversity the Bismarck, N.D., native has already overcome in his short five years at NDSU. That’s what might make Wentz qualified for taking the keys to an organization with more issues than any other in the League.
Even before becoming a Bison, in high school, Wentz was forced to stop playing his favorite position in baseball: shortstop. He was also forbidden to pitch. The injury wiped away his junior year at quarterback so he was forced to play safety and linebacker. (No wonder he enjoys the contact of running over undersized defensive backs in the Missouri Valley.)
Wentz’s was never a camp guy, either. He was off most school’s radars at the same time he was leading Bismarck Century High School to a state semifinal appearance. Besides a late entrance to the party by Central Michigan, Wentz was only fielding offers from FCS schools.
He picked NDSU. A school with an enrollment under 15,000 was in its eighth year of Division I classification and the football program had only produced six NFL Draft picks since 1991. In 2011, Wentz’s first year, the Bison had five quarterbacks on their roster. Four of them were sophomores and younger.
It took patience to crack the starting lineup. Wentz waited for his time while he was stuck behind the all-time winningest quarterback in FCS history, Brock Jensen. The only time he sniffed the field was during janitorial duty during another Bison blowout.
There’s also the 14-0 deficit he had to overcome against a Big 12 program during his first start. Wentz waited three years for his opportunity to lead the Bison under center and before the first half of his first start, the Iowa State Cyclones had buried him in a hole. Go back to stories on that game. Who did John Crockett say led them to victory? Carson Wentz.
He also answered the clutch question with his three fourth quarter comebacks in the 2014 FCS Playoffs. And lest we forget the game-winning drive in the championship game against Illinois State with 1:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.
What about that time he broke his throwing wrist in the first half of NDSU’s biggest slip up in five years? After waiting three years to start, the majority of his senior year was taken from him in the blink of an eye against South Dakota.
Eleven weeks after the devastating loss to South Dakota, Wentz announced he was going to return to play in his last college game. All he did was combine for three touchdowns in a rout of Jacksonville State in the FCS Championship game.
None of these things stopped Wentz into becoming the player he is today. That’s what’s special about him. Every single instance Wentz was faced with a less-than-ideal situation for his team or himself – i.e., adversity – he rose to the occasion.
“I think Carson and I grew up, and whether it was in athletics or academics, we were one hundred percent committed,” Zach Wentz said. “That’s just part of how we were brought up I think and now he took it to a whole other level in the football side of things. He spends so much time in the film room, watching film of NDSU, the opponents, recently watching NFL film. So he’s spent so much time doing that stuff and now the offense at NDSU has given him a great opportunity to have success at the next level just because of so many schemes they ran at NDSU.”
Hedberg said it was Wentz’s leadership and ability to give advice to the younger quarterbacks that helped NDSU win its fifth consecutive title. It’s not only his skill and his football IQ, it’s the way he can process what’s happening on the field quickly, continued Hedberg.
So why select Wentz as the future quarterback for your franchise?
“I’m a winner,” Wentz said. “You can look and it’s hard to find somebody with the physical abilities I have, but I go beyond that with the intangibles, the leadership, the mental side of things that people might take for granted. Can you get guys going, can you get in the right play calls, can you handle a lot of information, can you process quickly; a lot of the things to the general fan might go unnoticed about me.”
On April 28, the mock drafts will be set aside that evening in Chicago. Wentz will be on the minds of millions of viewers tuning in to see where the kid from NDSU will go. Certainly, the entire state that’s become enamored by Wentz will be watching, pleading and praying to see where the man that represents so much more than NDSU will end up.
“It’s just awesome knowing the support and the following that I’ve had, not only in college but it’s going to continue and it means a lot to me to represent my home state and everything,” Wentz said. “I take great pride in that so I hope to represent them well.”
North Dakota has produced three NFL quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. Hedberg and Brooks Bollinger were blips on the radar compared to the attention Wentz has and will continue to receive. The Peace Garden State will have a new face representing it through the NFL, and it couldn’t be a better individual than Wentz.
With no posse, no ego and no ulterior motives, Wentz is much more than a prototypical franchise quarterback. He’s your typical North Dakota kid who wants and will continue playing a child’s game until they tell him he no longer can. He’s a faith-based 4.0-student with a future behind a headset that not only NDSU and North Dakota can get behind, but someone the kid down the block can relate and look up to.
There’s no doubting the changes that are coming for Wentz once he’s wearing the NFL shield on his collar. What will fail to change is the attitude and person Wentz has developed into at NDSU. And that, more than anything, should make NFL teams excited to have Wentz on their roster.