I tried to write the end of this column a few different times in a more tactful manner. It didn’t convey the same message, so I opted to keep it sharper than a bullet pass from Carson Wentz. Wentz, the quarterback from North Dakota State, is slated to be one of the top quarterbacks, if not the top overall pick, in this year’s NFL Draft. Coaches, NFL executives, scouts, and draft analysts are gushing over Wentz’s rocket arm, broad frame, accuracy, on-field leadership, character, and just about every other attribute you can think of – both tangible and intangible.
Here’s a sampling: Todd McShay, one of ESPN’s top draft analysts, says Wentz “has the height, sturdy frame, natural accuracy and on-field leadership you look for in a quarterback.” The Cleveland Browns own the second overall pick in the draft and are viewed by many, barring a trade, as the first team that will take a quarterback. Mel Kiper Jr., EPSN’s other top draft guru, thinks the Browns should take the Bismarck, N.D. native that led NDSU to its last two Football Championship Subdivision national titles. “Wentz would make sense here as a super physical talent whom new [Browns] coach Hue Jackson can develop.”
Going a step further, Jon Gruden, the Monday Night Football host and former NFL Super Bowl-winning head coach called Wentz “the most NFL-ready quarterback that we’ve had in here the last couple years,” after the Bison signal-caller appeared on Gruden’s QB Camp special for ESPN’s SportsCenter. The other guys that were previously featured on Gruden’s QB Camp include Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr – all NFL studs. Likewise, during his Pro Day at the Fargodome a few weeks ago, the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, another draft analyst and unabashedly pro-Wentz supporter, compared Wentz to Luck, the All-Pro quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. After throwing laser passes all morning, Mayock opined, “Let me tell you, he’s 237 pounds and he’s every bit as athletic as Andrew Luck or Cam Newton, and I believe that 100 percent.”
By the way, not only can he sling it on the football field, Wentz is a two-time academic All-American and winner of the NCAA’s Elite 90 Award, which goes to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average in his sport. He carried a 4.0 GPA in health and physical education.
It’s high praise for one of the biggest enigmas of the NFL Draft in recent memory. After registering high marks for his performance at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Draft Combine, and his Pro Day, how exactly can Wentz still be this mysterious quantity from a team that has won the last five FCS national championships, appeared numerous times on ESPN and ESPN2, and plays in a conference – the Missouri Valley Football Conference – that is better than many FBS conferences? Therein is the rub. The only knock on Wentz is that he played for a “small-time” school against supposedly “inferior competition” at the FCS level. Please.
That is what I take issue with. There is nothing, absolutely nothing small- time about Wentz or NDSU. Anyone who thinks differently doesn’t know their head from a hole in the ground. The Bison finished this season ranked 36th in the Sagarin ratings, a ranking system of every team at the FBS and FCS level. The other top-tier quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Jared Goff of California and Memphis’s Paxton Lynch, played for teams that finished 32nd and 48th, respectively. Last year, in 2014, when Wentz, Goff and Lynch were all starters, NDSU ranked 32nd in the Sagarin ratings while Memphis finished at 39th and California came in a step lower at 59th.
For his part, during interviews the week of the Senior Bowl, Wentz explained that the small time label is only that – a meaningless label. “I want to address that right away and prove I can play at a high level, play at a fast level, and compete with those guys and really excel,” said Wentz. “I feel I have the mental and physical abilities to play at this level. I’m ready and excited to prove that.” And those who know, know there isn’t anything small-time about the Bison, a program that currently has five players on NFL rosters, including Marcus Williams, who finished fifth in the NFL in interceptions last year with six picks for the New York Jets. Often overlooked is the fact that Wentz played with NFL-caliber talent during his time at NDSU, guys like Williams, Kyle Emanuel, Billy Turner, John Crockett, Joe Haeg and C.J. Smith.
Also overlooked are nuggets like this. In this January’s national championship game against Jacksonville State, Wentz led the Bison to a 37-10 thrashing of the Gamecocks. Playing in his first game in ten weeks after suffering a broken wrist, Wentz was sharp, connecting on 16-of-29 passes, several NFL-esque lasers, with one passing touchdown and two rushing scores. This is the same Jacksonville State team that marched into Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium and nearly pulled an upset last September before falling 27-20 in overtime to a team that played in the 2013 FBS national title game. The fact is, NDSU would beat the majority of teams at the FBS level if lined up against them, despite having 20 fewer scholarships. Why? Because NDSU has better athletes than most of these schools.
Dennis Dodd, a senior columnist for CBS Sports, has followed NDSU’s record-breaking success since 2011. Dodd knows the football-obsessed culture in North Dakota is more akin to the big-time football of the Southeastern Conference as opposed to some backwater where a mythic quarterback has grown like a diamond in the rough only now to emerge as a franchise player for the team smart enough to draft Wentz. “Since 2006, the Bison are 8-3 against FBS competition. They open 2016 against Iowa. … By all rights, NDSU should be playing in FBS,” Dodd said. In an unsolicited response to a tweet by a Fox Sports college football and draft analyst, ESPN’s Chris Fowler exclaimed, “[Y]ou should see the place [Fargo] during a fall Saturday. Two unforgettable GameDays there.” The smart guys know that Wentz won’t shy away from the big stage and bright lights. He will excel on them.
So, for those expert analysts and NFL execs knocking Wentz for playing at some small school in Fargo, N.D., I’ll leave you with this. Start updating your resume. There is nothing small-time about Wentz or NDSU. If you pass on Wentz because you have some misconception of the level of play at NDSU, get ready for the red-haired, faith-based, hometown, pride of North Dakota kid from tiny Bismarck to spend the next 15 seasons stealing your lunch on the NFL playground.