MOBILE, Ala. – The North Dakota State campus had many NFL visitors last fall. Scouts needed to see this FCS wunderkind up close, this Carson Wentz kid.
That size? Those numbers? Yeah, that warrants a hike to Fargo.
And as Wentz morphed into a legitimate NFL prospect, one team kept showing up again and again … the Buffalo Bills.
“I was just talking to one of our video coordinators,” said North Dakota State quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg by phone Thursday, “and I said, ‘What teams would you think?’ And one of the teams that was here the most was the Bills. They’ve been in our building quite a bit and in our practices.
“He’s a special kid. These types of kids don’t come around very often.”
Wentzmania has officially consumed the city of Mobile. His play has scouts, coaches and the media buzzing all week – and the Bills’ interest sounds genuine. At this rate, he won’t fall to No. 19 overall. Not to mention, the Bills are in a win-now state of mind that could use an instant contributor on defense more than a young arm. Tyrod Taylor is, after all, currently in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
But no doubt about it, the Bills are doing their due diligence. General Manager Doug Whaley, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the team’s legion of scouts all got a look with Wentz and the team met with him again.
What’s not to love?
He’s a muscular 6-foot-5, 233 pounds. Smoke virtually whistles off his hand on NFL-ready throws – he’s completed back-shoulder throws, comebacks, deep outs. The guy who threw for 4,762 yards, rushed for 936 and scored 54 total touchdowns in 23 games with the Bison is now knifing completions against Big Ten - and Big 12-level competition.
Surrounded by reporters after Thursday’s practice – one in which he stuck a back-shoulder laser to Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge for a touchdown – Wentz didn’t seem like a wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights small-school kid happy to be here.
Everything has been faster, yes, but he believes he’s reacting fast to it all.
“It doesn’t matter if you come from the SEC or the FCS or Division II,” Wentz said. “Obviously the NFL is fast. Watching the NFL tape, guys fly around. So everyone has to make that adjustment. Honestly, I’m going to just as well. I’m more than excited and ready to prove that.”
He doesn’t see the need to show anything “new” to teams, either. This week is more about gaining believers.
“I think my film speaks for itself – I can make all the throws. So out here, I was just ready to come out here and cut it loose and reaffirm those throws.”
He actually sees the North Dakota State experience easing his transition into the NFL. Remember, last summer, Whaley lamented the fact that the college quarterbacks of today aren’t ready for this transition to the pros. He’s worried spread offenses can have a negative effect.
Well, unlike most quarterbacks picked from such systems, Wentz operated under center with the Bison, huddled almost exclusively, made all protection calls at the line of scrimmage and had the freedom to change runs to passes and passes to runs. No, he was not a programmed robot.
“We’re not a look-look team where the quarterback looks to the sideline and gets the play,” Hedberg said. “He has to make adjustments.
“I told all the NFL people that came in here the first couple months of the season that this guy’s upside is tremendous. His ceiling is extremely high.”
That’s because he has only started three years at quarterback – one in high school, two in college. His growth spurt came late, too, so Wentz slipped through the recruiting cracks.
Hedberg calls him an “exceptional athlete” who’s also “highly intelligent.” Once, Wentz knew to switch to a specific protection the Bison never ran in any practice, any game.
“We were in a no-back formation – and we had only talked about it, we had never done it,” Hedberg said. “We were in a five-man protection and normally our five-man protection is a man/zone concept. Well, he recognized that we were going to get pressure off one side and they were going to drop the end off the other side. We gap-protected it with five men and picked up that particular pressure.
“That’s his football IQ. It’s so high. I think he’s really special, I really do.”
Of course, it’s always dangerous to buy into January hype. Countless quarterbacks have seen their so-called “stock” rise, then crash on draft day. Wentz might be the latest concoction, a walking smoke screen teams are hyping up for fun.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock viewed Wentz as a potential first-round pick with a big arm even before he took the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium this week.
“The biggest question with a kid who jumps from I-AA to any position is the game’s a lot faster,” Mayock said, “especially for a quarterback. The windows close much more quickly. You don’t have time when you roll out to get your shoulders and your hips and feet – the ball has to come out. I think he understands that and is working hard to show that.”
Drill to drill, Wentz is vocal, assertive. He says it’s all genuine, too. Further, Hedberg insists that Wentz excelled in pressure-packed situations.
Then again, he never faced SEC Championship pressure. He wasn’t playing in a 100,000-seat stadium. The Fargodome seats 19,000.
Wentz is reminded he remains a mystery to everyone.
“I think physically, I have a lot to offer in being able to make all the throws with some athleticism that people probably wouldn’t expect from a big 6-5 kid like myself,” he said.
“So I think there’s that level. And obviously the system we ran at North Dakota State was very pro style, multiple.
“So I’m looking forward to that transition helping me go forward.”
Yet another QB decision could await. EJ Manuel excelled at the Senior Bowl, too, and now his NFL career is now on the brink. At least in Buffalo.
The Bills must tread January hype carefully. But even with a Pro Bowl quarterback, Wentz is making them think.