Justin Fields is trying to make history.
Three times in the program's storied past has an Ohio State Buckeye been the first overall pick an NFL Draft. Tom Cousineau (1979), Dan Wilkinson (1994), and Orlando Pace (1997) all earned this honor for their play at the college level, but none played the sport's most important (and well-paid) position: quarterback.
Art Schlichter was picked fourth in 1982 by the Baltimore Colts, marking the earliest an OSU signal-caller has been selected to the professional ranks. That could very well change whenever the next Draft takes place, however, as Fields is a prime contender for the top spot after a spectacular debut season in 2019.
Fans of both the pro and college game are well aware of Fields' talents, as well as those of his primary competition for the honor, Clemson QB and fellow Georgia native, Trevor Lawrence. The two have been competing against one another going back to their high school days, with Lawrence just edging him out as the top overall recruit in the class of 2018. While the duo from the Atlanta area highlighted that year's prep class, there were 113 more quarterbacks deemed superior to a third player who is currently garnering NFL attention.
Trey Lance grew up in southwest Minnesota, near the South Dakota border, and was deemed the 2,006th-best overall recruit in his class, yet still earned scholarship offers from FBS programs like Boise State and Western Michigan before settling on FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.
Best known among casual football fans as the program that produced Carson Wentz, the Bison have created a dynasty few programs have ever matched, winning eight of the previous nine FCS national titles and currently riding a 37-game unbeaten streak. Two former head coaches, Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman, have carried that success into jobs at the FBS level, as they currently lead Wyoming and Kansas State, respectively.
But NDSU may currently have the most talented player in program history currently on campus in Lance.
1. Quick/Easy throwing motion— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) April 27, 2020
2. Deep accuracy
3. Play-action comfort
Those are the three traits that immediately jump off of the screen about North Dakota State QB Trey Lance (6-3, 224, R-So.) pic.twitter.com/WVVHUwMpbt
Like Fields, Lance saw limited playing time as a true freshman, earning a redshirt before becoming the starter in his second year. Also like Fields, Lance lit up opponents with remarkable efficiency, passing for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns while rushing for 1,100 yards and more 14 scores. Most impressively, he did so without committing a single turnover in 16 games.
After sealing yet another national championship with the 44-yard scramble on 3rd and 23 shown above, Lance became the first player ever to win the Walter Payton (best FCS offensive player) and Jerry Rice (best FCS freshman) awards in the same season. While his arm strength, athleticism, and eye-popping stats might have been enough to earn attention from pro scouts on their own, it's easy to see why they're so interested in Fargo's most famous resident when looking one level deeper.
The Bison have built their offensive identity around a smashmouth running game, leaning on A-gap Power to overwhelm opponents in the spread offense era. However, this doesn't mean the NDSU system lacks creativity.
Rather, opponents will see not only a variety of personnel packages from the Bison, going four-wide from the shotgun one play then lining up with three tight ends the next, but every kind of pre-snap motion imaginable. Fargodome visitors are treated to a never-ending barrage of shifts, trades, and motions which force defenses to constantly adjust on the fly and open up both the inside run game and the play-action pass.
Like an NFL quarterback, Lance is tasked with reading the defense to free up the running game, with a number of quick relief, Run-Pass Options such as bubble screens to stress the edges.
Like Fields, Lawrence, and many other members of the NFL's young class of elite QBs, Lance is more than capable of keeping the ball himself as a runner. Building off their base, A-gap Power blocking scheme, the Bison staff like to lean on Power-Read once inside the red zone, giving their 6'3" 225 lb QB the chance use his legs as a weapon.
But Lance is not just a raw athlete in a complex system. He's a refined passer with excellent mechanics who throws a tight spiral on nearly every pass, not only getting the ball to his receivers accurately but leading them to run after the catch.
He's not only capable of making plays in the pocket but can throw on the move in either direction. As seen in the play-action flood concept below, he throws a deep comeback perfectly while rolling to his left, getting his shoulders perpendicular to the line in order to generate enough torque to deliver a difficult throw with some zip...all while rolling out and escaping the pass rush.
That ability to throw off boot action is immediately transferrable to pro teams running variations of the west coast offense, which has come back into fashion thanks to the likes of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. Inspired by those two creative play-callers, the Bison don't just look for quick timing routes or horizontal stretches off play-action, as they call vertical concepts which free up receivers downfield, such as this Y-leak concept Shanahan has been dialing up with great success for years.
Despite the arm strength, throwing mechanics, and athleticism, what stands out most when watching Lance is his command and understanding of his surroundings, one of the most intangible traits scouts look for in a pro quarterback. One such example can be seen below:
Lance stops his cadence and pulls away from center as he sees late movement from the defense, recognizing a blitz off the right side and adjusting the play-call. Once the ball is snapped, he not only identifies the open tight end quickly but feels the pressure and slides up in the pocket with his feet perfectly set to deliver an accurate throw. Instead of a potential negative play, the result is a big gain.
This ability to keep plays alive without losing his mechanics is one reason why NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to Andrew Luck, perhaps the most polished QB prospect in a generation. While Lance still has a few rough edges to sand off before reaching that level, he has shown some of the magic it takes to succeed at the highest level, such as this scramble drill in the FCS playoff semifinal:
Plenty of questions still remain about Lance's ability to replicate this success against top competition, and the now-canceled season-opener at Oregon was supposed to provide answers. With Fields and the Buckeyes coming to Eugene a week later, scouts would have had an apples-to-apples comparison between the two redshirt sophomores.
Now, with the Missouri Valley Conference season in just as much doubt as the Big Ten's or ACC's, it's unclear if and when Lance will again suit up in a North Dakota State uniform. But for those who believe he, Fields, and Lawrence should all sit out the season and be content with the performances they've already put on tape, there are 10 million reasons to try for the top spot in the draft.
The most recent #1 pick, Joe Burrow, just signed a four-year, $36 million dollar deal with the Bengals, every dollar of which is guaranteed. The third QB taken, Justin Herbert, heard his name called just five picks later and also received a four-year, fully guaranteed deal from the L.A. Chargers, but his is worth just $26 million.
While such a deal would be life-changing for just about anyone, it's not as though the financial difference between being the first and third quarterback taken is negligible. The entire class of 2018 has an uncertain future ahead, but the long-standing competition between its two most famous members now has a third entrant.