CHICAGO – As they let a slim lead slip away, North Dakota State found itself in a rare position.
After giving up a 23-21 advantage to Illinois State in the 2014 FCS National Championship, the Bison trailed the Redbirds, 27-23, with just 1:38 left. NDSU was in danger of seeing its streak of three straight national titles come to an end – titles that had culminated with relatively easy victories in each prior championship game.
It was an uncomfortable spot for them to be in, but the Bison still held the ultimate trump card in their hands: Carson Wentz.
The quarterback channeled his inner Joe Montana – sans John Candy in the crowd – to lead the Bison on one final drive for a come-from-behind victory. Wentz showed off his entire repertoire on the drive, completing 3-of-5 passes for 78 yards with a deep post, quick out and 33-yard vertical before capping the comeback off with a 5-yard touchdown run in a 29-27 win.
Moments like that clutch championship-winning drive are exactly why NFL owners, general managers and scouts have drooled over the talented quarterback. And moments like that are when the 22-year-old himself knew he could play at the highest level of competition.
“After the end of my junior year, going through the playoffs and beating a tough Illinois State team in the championship, it really started to hit me [that I could play in the NFL],” Wentz said Wednesday morning before the 2016 NFL Draft. “After that year, I knew physically I could handle this and I showed it through that year when we won the championship.”
Wentz has been tabbed as a “can’t miss prospect” by several draft experts around the nation, and it’s easy to see why. He showcased consistency, high work ethic, strong football IQ and leadership on and off the field throughout his five years in Fargo. The physical tools of the towering 6-foot-5, 237-lb. signal caller, plus the poise shown in pressure-packed situations, are just a few more examples of why Wentz is so highly touted.
So sure, he’s an intelligent, hard working and exemplary guy. But why would an NFL team, desperate to win now, take such a high risk by throwing millions into an unproven arm that only threw 612 passes in his collegiate career? Toss in the fact that Wentz threw those passes against FCS competition – the second tier level of Division I football – and the question is, “Why should Carson Wentz be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick?”
The answer is simple: upside.
It’s not like it’s a secret. The NFL is a passing league, and the number of great quarterbacks is growing smaller by the day. Teams are champing at the bit to find the next franchise guy who can lead them to the promised land.
Can Wentz be that cornerstone, franchise quarterback? Absolutely. Will it be a smooth road? Absolutely not.
Wentz is not John Elway, or Peyton Manning, or Andrew Luck, or Jim Kelly, or Dan Marino. He is not one of the best quarterback prospects in NFL history. In fact, he may not even be the best quarterback in his own class.
Jared Goff, quarterback out of the University of California, is the man Wentz will be compared to -- whether he likes it or not -- for the rest of his career ala Elway/Marino. Ever since the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles traded up to the No. 1 and No. 2 overall slots, respectively, the debates have been endless over who will be the top quarterback taken – and who will have the best career.
“I don’t get caught up in who’s the other guy,” Wentz said. “I’ve still to this date barely watched anything on his tape. I’ve seen him when we throw side-by-side and everything, but I know he’s going to be a great player. Obviously, everyone’s going to compare us for a long time and it just is what it is. It’ll be exciting to see where we both fall. Hopefully, we play each other a lot in the NFL.”
Goff and Wentz have the potential to both have successful careers in the NFL.
Wentz has the skillset to be not just a good NFL quarterback, but a great one. But his familiarity with the pro-style offense, calmness in the pocket and his sharp release are essentially cancelled out by his lack of arm strength, inconsistent footwork and inability to throw the deep ball.
“You can’t worry about what other people say,” Wentz said. “I’m always going to hold myself to high expectations regardless. It doesn’t matter how I’m judged, I’m always going to be a hard working quarterback. I won’t let the critics get to me.”
Wentz says that now, but coming from North Dakota where he was football royalty, he has yet to handle criticism on a national stage.
How is he going to react when he throws three or four interceptions in a blowout loss? What is he going to do when he misses a receiver for a game-winning touchdown? Will he show toughness if he rolls out of the pocket and gets smashed by Bobby Wagner or Ryan Kerrigan? How will he handle the brutal Philly fans should he land with the Eagles?
“It’s exciting to bring light to North Dakota,” Wentz said. “I want to show you can come from anywhere. North Dakota is an awesome place and I just wanted to really hit on that.”
Being raised a country boy his whole life, it certainly will be a culture shock no matter where he ends up.
Wentz will find out Thursday evening whether he will be flying out to the West Coast to play in the land of glamour for the Los Angeles Rams, or to a less alluring City of Brotherly Love to sling passes for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Obviously, Philly is really passionate, their fans are ready to win,” Wentz said. “L.A., it’s an exciting time for that franchise. Their fans come from all over the place. Both are awesome situations. We’ll see what happens.”
Wherever the destination, whatever “awesome situation” he lands in one thing will be clear: the pressure will be immediately on. If the 2014 Championship game is any indication, Wentz can certainly handle the heat.
Just don’t be surprised if he gets a little burnt.