NFL Draft 2021: Who is Trey Lance, the draft's most mysterious prospect?

THE ENDLESS DANCE of the 7-year-old was conducted in its full kinetic glory on an early February day at Holy Redeemer School in Marshall, Minnesota. The second graders in Mrs. Klaith's class bounced in and out of their Plexiglas-enclosed desks, talking in unison in their own delirious language, treating every one of life's minor revelations with frantic wonder. Everyone, it appeared, needed an immediate bathroom break. Mrs. Klaith, a consummate pro, managed the chaos like an auctioneer.

The cause of the commotion sat calmly in a kitchen within sight of the beach in Pensacola, Florida. Trey Lance, former North Dakota State quarterback, likely top-5 pick in the April 29 NFL draft and currently the most famous Holy Redeemer alumnus, instigated the excitement by appearing on a computer screen and beaming his smile into a school more than 1,300 miles away.

Lance began the discussion by telling an assembly of kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students that he was never taught by Mrs. Klaith because "she was not a fan of me at the time" (Mrs. Klaith, momentarily thrown, responded, "Trey, I would have gladly taken you in second grade").

The kids had questions, and as the 25-minute session got rolling, those questions managed to elicit answers that were slyly revealing. Lance was asked his favorite memory of Holy Redeemer, and he said, "Had to be the eighth grade carnival." The first thing he does every morning is read a book (currently: "Blink") and then watch a sermon online, usually delivered by evangelical pastors Steven Furtick or Michael Todd. His favorite prayer is "Hail Holy Queen," and he finds it strange that he is entering into a world where potential employment requires "X-rays and MRIs on pretty much my whole body. It's kind of weird to think that's a thing for a job." When Mrs. Klaith relayed the next question -- "Are you better at running or throwing?" -- Lance looked around as if he suspected an NFL scout had infiltrated the chat. "I guess we'll see what everybody else thinks," he said. "It's not up to me at this point. It's what other people think about me, which is kind of weird to think about, but that's what it is today."

Through it all, the 20-year-old Lance smiled, laughed and generally conducted himself like someone who isn't so far removed from second grade that he couldn't channel the overall vibe. "What's my number?" he asked, repeating a question. "Is that my phone number or my jersey number? My jersey number is 5, but I can't give you my phone number." He asked them if they still played foursquare at recess, which led someone to ask if he would return to play foursquare with them after he makes the NFL. "I'll definitely be back to play foursquare," Lance said, prompting what sounded like a small riot, "and go to HRS basketball games."

Lance's face -- young-man smooth, with eyes crinkling with every smile and eyebrows arched in a permanent state of curiosity -- seems genetically engineered for happiness. It's a big world out there, full of temptation, jealousy and free safeties who swear they didn't hear the whistle, but in this moment Lance is affected by none of it. This face appears to be where skepticism goes to die.

"Going to school with a smile on your face can have a huge impact," he told the second graders. "You don't know what someone right next to you is going through at home, so asking people how they're doing might be weird and awkward right at the beginning, but your positive energy can change your life, and the lives of others."

When he's not handing out life advice to tweens, Lance is the most mysterious potential star in this month's NFL draft. He is 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, has played in a pro-style offense in college that demanded he make reads at the line, runs the 40 in somewhere around 4.5 seconds and, in response to a question, told the students at Holy Redeemer that he once threw a ball 79 yards. "But that was a while ago," he said. "I think I can beat that now." It sounded more like an aside than a flex.

In truth, Lance seems to have been created for the sole purpose of confounding, and enticing, NFL decision-makers. He has shown all the physical (speed, arm strength, accuracy) and mental (ability to read a defense, leadership, pattern identity) qualities NFL scouts look for, but in precious few repetitions to evaluate their next-level utility. Lance presents the kind of conundrum that no longer seemed possible: He is an underexposed quarterback.

Lance started 17 games for FCS North Dakota State, and 16 of them were as a redshirt freshman in 2019. His 2019 numbers are cartoonish: 2,786 yards passing, 28 touchdowns and precisely zero interceptions in 287 attempts -- an NCAA record for attempts without an interception. In two games he threw more touchdowns than incompletions. He also ran for 14 touchdowns and 1,100 yards (an impressive total, but probably half of what the two bespectacled boys at the front of Mrs. Klaith's class run in the average recess).

After the pandemic wiped out the fall season for FCS schools, North Dakota State managed to play one game, against Central Arkansas. The game was widely considered to be played for one reason -- to showcase Lance -- but NDSU contended it was a chance to play a game, any game, during a time when schedules and regulations were in constant flux and the team was on campus, practicing and ready to go. Whichever explanation you choose to adopt, there is no doubt it was one of the strangest events of a strange year. "The NFL likes to talk about pressure," says Terry Bahlmann, Lance's head coach at Marshall High. "Well, there was a lot of pressure on Trey in that game. It was like a farewell game for him, just a whole different vibe." Lance had his worst game, throwing his first and only collegiate interception in the first half, but ended up completing 50% of his passes, running for 143 yards, throwing two touchdowns and finishing his career with a 17-0 record as a starter. As bad games go, it was pretty damned good.

"Trey is probably the hardest evaluation I've had to do in 11 years," says ESPN draft scout Matt Miller. "Seventeen starts is a very small picture to get a complete idea of who a player is, and it's not only 17 but 17 against FCS competition. But in those games, I've never seen a player so dominant. If you trust the tape, he should be the No. 2 quarterback taken in the draft, behind [Trevor] Lawrence."

Pre-draft analysis, for what it's worth, indicates Lance won't be the second quarterback drafted (BYU's Zach Wilson, we are told, is all but assured to go to the Jets at No. 2), but there's a rare sense of genuine uncertainty regarding whether Lance, Ohio State's Justin Fields or Alabama's Mac Jones will be taken by the 49ers with the third pick. In the mimetic world of the NFL, where no quarterback exists unless in comparison to someone else, Lance is a generational puzzle. Getting it right could change a franchise. Getting it wrong could, too.

TREY LANCE WAS 5 years old when Carlton and Angie Lance prepared for a big Saturday morning at the local park. Carlton, a former Canadian Football League defensive back who is a Hall of Famer at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, plotted it out: He and Trey would head to the park with Trey's bike, whereupon Carlton would remove the training wheels and proceed to teach the older of his two sons how to ride on two wheels.

"Oh, it was a big deal," Angie says. "A really big deal."

They got to the park, shed the extra wheels and set about the task of some serious bonding. "OK, buddy," Carlton said. "You can do this." He walked next to his son and held his hand on the seat and did all the dad things you're supposed to do until he realized -- about five seconds into this big deal -- that he was even less essential than the training wheels. Trey sped out of his grasp and rode around the park like he was ready for a unicycle. They'd been gone about 10 minutes when Carlton and Trey returned to the house.

Angie met Carlton at the door. "What happened?" she whispered, just in case it had gone badly. Carlton shrugged. "Nothing -- Trey can ride a bike now."

This is an anecdotal way of informing the world that it's best not to make the mistake -- as I did -- of suggesting to Carlton Lance that Trey Lance is a late bloomer. After the fact, when I sheepishly told Angie what I had done, she said, "Oh, you didn't. People say that all the time, like, 'Oh, Trey must have gotten so much better once he got to NDSU.' It makes Carl really mad."

What Carlton said in response was far more diplomatic than his wife would have guessed, but his voice did adopt a crisper tone the second the description hit his ears. "No, Trey is not a late bloomer," he said, each syllable strung like barbed wire. "Everything you have seen him do he has been doing since he was in high school. From that point on, all we were looking for was an opportunity. Did I see it blowing up like this? No, but I was hopeful."

Perhaps to preempt another question, Carlton volunteers, "Trey's had a good upbringing: two-parent home, gets good grades, doesn't have any trouble. That's another box I would check." It is a tacit acknowledgment that character issues is a label that historically gets pinned disproportionately on Black quarterbacks. Trey's offensive coordinator at North Dakota State, former NFL quarterback Randy Hedberg, tells NFL people, "Trey can carry a franchise with his personality. When he walks into a room, you know who he is."

Carlton, a financial analyst, was a volunteer defensive assistant at Marshall. "He was one of our strictest coaches," says Blaise Andries, now an offensive tackle at the University of Minnesota. "Tough love, but it was always love."

Trey was a sophomore when his dad told him he wasn't running hard on kick coverage. "Yes, I am," Trey said. Carlton went to the film, where the two of them sat down to see who was right. Carlton paused the screen at one point and asked, "Trey, is this an offensive lineman?" Trey nodded. "Are you faster than him?" Another nod. "Then why is he beating you down the field?" Point, Carlton. "He never jogged again," he says. It was around that time that Carlton started saying, "The only one stopping Trey is Trey." Soon it evolved into a motivational call-and-response. "Who's stopping Trey?" Carlton would ask, and Trey would answer, "Trey."

The biggest hurdle for Lance in college recruiting was the same as it is in draft evaluations: There was just never enough of him. At Marshall High, he was routinely lifted from games at halftime with his team leading by five or six touchdowns. "The hype wasn't big on Trey," Bahlmann says, in a classic bit of southwestern Minnesota dryness, brittle as the crunch of snow underfoot. "He just didn't have the stats. He played the whole game just once his junior year. If we were up by 40 at halftime, what was I supposed to do? Keep him in and have him throw?"

It is easy to be overlooked when you come from Marshall, a town of 14,000 with a high school team that had to travel three hours to play a school of comparable size. ("Mostly farm kids who love mudding and shooting people with Airsoft guns," says South Dakota State running back Jefferson Lee V, who, along with Lance, was one of the few Black players at Marshall. "Man, I don't like mud at all.") Lance was throwing the ball 65 yards in the air and running through defenders, but if nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? Two Iowa coaches came to a game only to see Lance lifted at halftime with a 54-0 lead. He barely threw a pass all night, and Iowa walked away with no idea what they did -- or didn't -- see. "I might be partly to blame," jokes high school teammate Reece Winkelman, a defensive end at South Dakota State. "I know I didn't help his stats any. I averaged 28 yards a catch as a tight end my senior year, but only because I would drop all the short passes because Trey's arm strength was unreal. I would bat the short ones down because I didn't want to break a finger."

Boise State was Lance's lone FBS quarterback offer, and it came the day before signing day. He had Big Ten offers to play either safety or linebacker. At some point in his high school career, he found himself traveling the well-worn and sometimes-coded road from "quarterback" to "athlete." Minnesota recruited him as a quarterback until P.J. Fleck took over for Tracy Claeys, at which point the Gophers switched and offered Lance an opportunity to play defense. "U of M stung for about a half hour," Angie Lance says. "Trey didn't need consoling or reassurances. We just dealt with what was there."

It's the plug-and-play storyline: overlooked athlete heads to college or pro sports cultivating the massive chip on his shoulder. He's either under-recruited out of high school or drafted too low in the pros, and from that point forward every fiber of his being is directed toward proving the doubters wrong. He holds on to specific slights and shovels them into his internal furnace to burn through every challenge. Damian Lillard writes rap songs about the high school coach who suggested the NBA might not be in his future; Aaron Rodgers has neither forgotten nor forgiven the highly recruited teammate at Cal who tried to nickname him "Juco" when he arrived on campus from a community college.

But how about a guy who was overlooked but didn't much care? Who didn't turn every perceived insult into a reason to live? Is it possible to be more thankful for the opportunity that was provided than bitter about those that were denied? Is it weird for an athlete to want to get better for the sheer challenge of it and not out of spite?

Lance was a guest on a youth-sports podcast in February of last year, and on it he was asked if the attention he received for his record-breaking, undefeated season at North Dakota State -- an FCS powerhouse claiming Carson Wentz as an alumnus -- made his life more difficult. "I don't know if it's as hard as people think," he said. "It's about eliminating the negative energy. I believe in putting positive energy into the universe and speaking things into existence."

On a dreary February night in Fargo, right after Lance had finished his redshirt season, he got a call from a former high school teammate. Blaise Andries was a year ahead of Lance at Marshall High, and was in his second year as an offensive tackle at Minnesota. It was about 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Andries was just checking in.

"What are you doing right now?" Andries asked.

"I'm at the stadium watching film," Lance said.

"Film of what?"

"I'm breaking down some NFL defenses."

Andries let that hang there. His friend, who was redshirting while future pro Easton Stick led North Dakota State to a second straight national title, was sitting in the Fargodome on a random Tuesday night -- in the offseason -- breaking down film of NFL defenses.

"First of all, why aren't you doing schoolwork?" Andries said. "And second, you're studying NFL defenses?"

Andries is telling me this story via Zoom from his apartment in Minneapolis. On the desk in front of him is a pile of study sheets crawling with numbers and formulas. A math major, he set out to become an actuary but then grew to 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, and got good enough at offensive tackle that his dream is likely to be delayed by an NFL career.

"Is what Trey did normal?" Andries asks. "Oh, no -- very abnormal. That man lived at that stadium. Seriously, it's an obsession. He was looking ahead at a time when nobody would have thought he should be looking ahead. You don't find many people who obsess over anything the way he does with football."

Back at HRS, Mrs. Klaith was relaying questions solicited from every classroom of HRS. Does Trey like being Bryce's older brother? "Yes," he said of the Marshall High receiver who will play in the fall at NDSU. "He's a lot more fun and exciting than I am." The sixth grade boys wanted to know his Xbox username, but Lance said he doesn't play often enough to remember it.

And just after he refused to name his favorite teacher -- "I see about six of them on here," he said, laughing -- he got a question that changed the mood.

LANCE LEANED IN, reading the question off the chat function on the Zoom call. He read it mostly to himself, kind of mumbly, and his eyes narrowed the more he read, no doubt wondering where it was headed. More than anything, his expression seemed to indicate a gradual realization that he had unwittingly walked chin-first into a friendly Zoom call with the most high-information elementary school in the upper Midwest.

"There was an event you attended in high school that was in Chicago," Lance began, "where all the interviews say you kept getting cut in front of in line. Would you have acted differently that day knowing what you know now, such as being more aggressive and cutting in line to put yourself in front of others?"

Lance leaned back in his chair and stalled a bit. "So I went to a camp in Chicago when I was in high school," he began, and proceeded to tell the story.

It was an Elite 11 quarterback camp the summer before his senior year of high school, and it was a chance for the wider world to get a look at Trey Lance. It was also a chance for Trey Lance to get an idea of where he fit into that wider world. Most of the high school quarterbacks at the camp were already anointed: savvier than Lance, from bigger places, hyped by private coaches, offered scholarships before they played a varsity game. "I was excited about it," Carlton Lance says. "We drove over there telling Trey, 'From my research and what I've looked at, I think you've got it, but I don't want to look at it through dad eyes. This is your chance to see where you stand.'"

But right away, Carlton felt something was off. None of the coaches were paying much attention to Trey, and during the throwing drills he noticed Trey wasn't moving up in the line. He'd be third in line, two guys would take reps and Trey would be second in line. "I'd see them cut him in line, and next thing I know they're taking Trey's reps," Carlton says. "I don't want to sound like sour grapes, because I don't think Trey should have been the one quarterback who moved on from there, but we thought it was an evaluation and we didn't get that."

On the drive home, Trey was quiet. Carlton told Angie, "Well, at least we know we don't need to go to the next camp." Trey piped in: "I don't even want to go."

The Lances were engaging in the dance of the modern parent: Are we doing enough? How much can we afford to spend and sacrifice for our son to reach his dream? Can we sit back and expect college recruiters to find Marshall, Minnesota, and look beyond the sparse statistics to see their son's potential?

Recruiting services sent out sales pitches with the same guilt-driven message: Your son is falling behind. Carlton kept hitting the same key: Don't put your worth onto others. Angie was torn; she wanted to give her son the best opportunity to succeed, but she didn't want her son to turn into an entitled line-cutter, either. "I would see kids playing on two or three AAU basketball teams and going to summer camps and playing in 7-on-7 tournaments in Florida, and I would ask Carl, 'Are we doing enough?'" Angie says. "He never wavered. He would tell me, 'He's good enough, and they'll find him. If he works hard and gets better, they'll find him.'"

In the kitchen in Pensacola, Trey leaned back, formulating the answer in his head. Finally, he bent forward again so his smile filled the screen. "So there were guys cutting ahead of me in line," he said. "But would I do anything differently? No, I really don't think so. That isn't my personality, and that was all in the plan for me to struggle at that camp and be frustrated. In the end, it was a good experience, for sure."

The questions ended, and Mrs. Klaith thanked Lance as the two bespectacled boys rushed the screen, waving frantically. Lance laughed and said, "It was awesome to see you guys."

As you read this, there are NFL scouts spelunking into the depths of Trey Lance's 17 game tapes, searching for flaws. They question the competition. They question the extent of the dataset. They question the ability for someone who has played against limited competition in limited games to pick up the nuances of NFL defenses quickly enough to merit a top-5 pick. Sure, they see the arm strength and the ability to throw on the run in either direction. They see the personality that his coaches believe can carry a franchise. They see a football-obsessive QB who studied NFL defenses before he even took a college snap, still manage to be goofy with second graders. Some of those scouts are undoubtedly falling in love. Some are scared witless. Some, it's safe to assume, are both. Forgive them their torment; there's a good chance they've never faced a set of circumstances like this before and never will again.

Trey Lance could make a franchise or set it back. The evolution of the position from niche obsession to national fetish has spawned a brand of mindless overanalysis that reduces the draft to a binary proposition: Boom or bust; Manning or Leaf; Trubisky or Mahomes. There are no certainties, that's for sure, but there are more variables and far more guesswork than anybody in the business would care to admit.

What do you believe? Carlton Lance believes his son will never let another man define his worth. Trey believes he can speak success into the universe. And the kids at Holy Redeemer School, especially the two bespectacled boys who rushed the computer screen to say goodbye, believe that Trey Lance will be back to play foursquare.