North Dakota State Bison quarterback Trey Lance’s potential is undeniable. He is is the best player on the football field every time his cleats cross the bold white line to enter the football game. His school has won the FCS division championship in eight of the past nine seasons.
They’ve done so in a league that hosts a legitimate playoff, too. They simply line up their athletes against the competition and beat them to a bloody pulp. In 2019 they outscored their opponents 596-197. All while running an offense your middle school coach would think is primitive.
It’s impossible to ignore. The talent discrepancy is as apparent as Jeff Bezos is obnoxiously wealthy. It will, barring an explosive upset and a huge performance from Lance during the Oregon game, be impossible for teams to justify drafting him over Lawrence.
And even with that kind of performance, it may still be impossible. Because at the end of the day talent evaluators have seen Lawrence do it consistently on the biggest of stages at the highest level of competition when at best they’ll see it from Lance once if he declares for the 2021 NFL Draft.
It doesn’t even matter if at the end of the day he’s more talented than Lawrence or Fields. It would be career suicide for a scout, general manager or coach to stand on top of the table and stamp their feet for Lance over the two more proven commodities. Because watching Lance is like watching a neighborhood full of 13-year-old kids playing football in the back yard with the varsity quarterback. It’s not even close to fair.
Trey Lance’s ball placement and play charting
Make no mistake, Sir Lance can absolutely sling the pill. That’s right, he has been knighted. However, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. And by that I mean it’s a five-sided throwing star. He correctly placed 125 of the 148 chartable passes for an overall number of 84.5%. That is an incredible clip. Nobody has hit that 80% mark in this exercise in the three seasons I’ve annotated ball placement.
Unfortunately, those passes came in a 10-game sample. That means in those games he was throwing 14.8 passes per contest. That’s… not a high volume. There were a lot of sequences where the offense would simply march down the field running the ball eight times on a 10-play drive. Three times in 2019 he had more rushing attempts than passing. In the national championship game, he threw the ball 10 times to his 30 rushing attempts.
He simply never has to work too hard. North Dakota runs a ton of heavy personnel sets packed into the box like sardines. They use a lot of two and three tight end sets. Their fullback matters. Their passing concepts are dated, and they play defenses that are forced into heavy defensive personnel that can’t be creative defensively. It’s a recipe for a complete bore, which is sad given how much fun it is to watch Lance play the game.
Ball placement by situation
In 148 attempts, 75 passes traveled past 10 yards downfield in the air. Of those 75 attempts, 52 of them (69.3%) were deemed adequately placed. That puts one foot on the tallest podium, and splits the gold medal in half with Jordan Love, albeit in 26 less attempts than Love.
If we expand this to looking at passes from 0-20 yards downfield we find exactly 75% of his passes were well placed, which puts him just above Tua Tagovailoa (74.2%) but lower than Joe Burrow (81.8%) and Jordan Love (85.9%.) Lance possesses a nice understanding of where balls need to be and has the ability to all areas of the field.
But where Lance really shined was his downfield passing. He can push the ball downfield with pace and fit it into a window we can hardly comprehend or release a ball early in a play with massive amounts of loft, dropping the pass 40-plus yards downfield right into the bucket. His feel for spot throws can be downright outrageous.
Lance didn’t do a ton of work throwing the football on the hoof with only 43 attempts. However, on said attempts, he placed 35 of them well. Most of his attempts outside the pocket were on designed rolls to his right or occasionally his left. In situations where the pocket collapsed and he was forced to displace he more than often opted to take off running instead of buying time to deliver a pass.
Money downs and red zone performance
Despite the offenses propensity to run on the first two downs, Lance rarely ever found himself facing a third down of fewer than 10 yards, but when he did, he was pinpoint on 81% of the throws (17/21.)
However, it was a bit unnerving watching the best team in the country throw 3-yard flat routes to backs on third-and-nine, which the offensive coordinator seemed to enjoy too often.
In those 10 games, Lance only attempted 12 passes in the red zone that were chartable, so there really isn’t going to be a real takeaway from that either. But for those wondering, 11 of the 12 were chefs kiss.
Lance’s passing ability
Lance has it all put together as a passer. He is less fluid and more mechanical than Love was, but they both create the same type of easy velocity. He’s mechanically efficient from shoulders to feet, keeping things in line, torquing the midsection through, and creating great extension on the follow-through. He does all that and has no issues going all arm when things around him get sticky. There is no throw he can’t make.
He has a great feel for avoiding initial pressure without panicking his way out of a throw. He’s comfortable making slight adjustments to create a throwing window and shows no problems changing direction and even shrugging away arm tackles.
He’ll need to become more comfortable and able to complete passes well out of structure. At the moment he tends to simply tuck and run, probably because it’s tough to stop him in those situations.
It’s tough to get a great feel for his game above the shoulders from a progression perspective. There are so many times where he only has one read to a side of the field. Hell, there was a snap or two where only one man ran a route. This primitive offense creates even more pause with an already muddy situation because it’s nearly impossible to project his ability to process a complete picture.
What about his running ability?
Let’s hearken back to the varsity QB playing the 12-year-old neighbor analogy. It’s simply unfair to watch most of these defensive backs try to tackle him. He doesn’t much like avoiding contact either, which he’ll need to figure out at the next level.
But he’s a smooth mover with the ball in his hands with pretty good juice in the open field, which allows him to break big runs both designed and when man coverage dictates he can take off. He will be a weapon in the red zone at the next level and shows a good understanding of ball control from under center to sell fakes and a quick and accurate eye on read-option looks.
What to make of Trey Lance’s potential
We need to ease our way into this. Lance is, after all, a redshirt sophomore at an FCS school. He’s an immensely talented athlete and passer playing future accountants, radio personalities, and engineers. He’s the picture of the Bugatti Veyron under the awning of a trailer park home.
But he’s right on par with the physical gifts of former Bison star Carson Wentz, and if I had to choose between him and Fields today, I’d bet on the upside of Lance. And for me personally, it’s not much of a debate. The debate begins with Lawrence, and although I won’t plant my flag on Lance island over Lawrence, I also wouldn’t destroy someone who chooses to do so.
I just can’t get over the competition level, no matter the level of dominance he exhibits against it.