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As the freshman team quarterback at Bismarck Century High, Carson Wentz stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 120 pounds. A growth spurt allowed him to become the projected varsity starter by his junior year, but a wrist injury delayed those plans until his senior season. Recruiting services did not create online dossiers for him. He matriculated without fanfare to North Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision power, where he would redshirt one season and sit on the bench for two more.
The wildly implausible may become reality at next week’s NFL Draft. How many quarterbacks were considered superior prospects to Wentz five years ago? He has leapfrogged perhaps all of them in the eyes of NFL evaluators. The Los Angeles Rams traded a ransom to move up to the draft’s first spot, and they will decide between Cal’s Jared Goff and Wentz, the late-bloomer from a far-flung football outpost.
“Never in my wildest dreams would you think five years later, he’s being mentioned as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft,” said Ron Wingenbach, Wentz’s coach at Bismarck Century. “It’s almost too surreal to think about something of that magnitude.”
At every level, the football industrial complex devotes untold resources into developing and finding quarterbacks, the most coveted commodity and most glamorous position in sports. What does it say about the efficiency of the systems in place that the NFL’s top pick might be an lower-division college player who didn’t start quarterback until his senior year of high school?
With widespread 7-on-7 leagues and a cottage industry popping up around grooming signal callers, the system continues to grow. Yet if the Rams take Wentz first, the top draft pick in a league desperate for competent quarterback play will be a player who developed outside the system. It may not be a quirk.
Wentz, some believe, is not a top prospect despite blooming late. He is, in some readings, a top prospect because he became he bloomed late. His delayed progression allowed him to develop well-rounded athletic skills and avoid the over-coaching – and, in some cases, detrimental coaching – many young quarterbacks receive.
“It’s killing the position,” said Jeff Christiansen, a former NFL quarterback who has tutored, among others, New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo. “It’s destroying it. I don’t think Wentz ever went to a quarterback coach. There are three or four guys that I had that never went, and they’re further along than had they gone to a guy and become a mechanical robot. It’s a glaring, glaring problem.”
Wentz never attended quarterback camps or sought individual teaching outside his team as a quarterback. In high school, he played basketball in winter and baseball in spring.
“We’re strong proponents of being multi-sport athletes,” Wingenbach said. “One thing that a lot of kids miss out on, they get to hear the voice of a different coach. After high school, you’re going to hear a bunch of different voices, whether at a job or in sports.”
For this reason, Wentz never experienced the incessant or repetitive coaching that is common for quarterbacks who are identified early as elite talents. Quarterback tutors have become prominent. In spring, 7-on-7 leagues, both associated with high schools and not, are common. Many parents believe their sons must do it all. Even as some excel, the constant quarterbacking can backfire. Those pushed into the camps and clinics are recognized as the best talent entering college, but they can regress, stall or burn out.
“It’s almost like some of those kids, if you’re lucky enough to find me or a guy who gets it, your talent is going to escalate and you’re going to play at a higher elevation,” Christiansen said. “If you find a clown who doesn’t get it, you’re going to throw it better, because you’re going to grow and get bigger and stronger. But they’re not going to throw it more efficiently or play the position better.”
Recently, Christiansen said, he knew six kids in the Chicago area who trained with a quarterback coach after earning college scholarships. Christiansen believed all of them possessed enough talent to land in NFL camps, and two could have been early-round draft picks.
“They were so mechanically broken after these two guys got there hooks in them, they all wound up playing different positions,” Christiansen said.
Christiansen argues with parents who want their son to focus on quarterbacking to the extent of quitting other sports. Playing basketball, Christiansen said, is the best thing an aspiring quarterback can do: It improves sudden movement, hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness.
As an unheralded high school player, Wentz never felt pressure to quit other sports to focus on football. Once he got to college as an overlooked recruit, no coaches had motive or desire to rush him on to the field. He worked hard, learned a pro-style offense and, when his time came, he revealed himself to be an unlikely NFL prospect. The process didn’t hurt him; it helped.
“I think that has a direct relationship,” Wingenbach said. “I look back at the recruiting process. If he would have been 6-2, 6-5 as a sophomore, I‘m almost certain he would have been more highly recruited coming out of high school. It would have made a world of difference of football.”
Quarterbacks have proven they can reach the NFL, and even thrive, after meager beginnings. Two years ago, the Patriots made Garoppolo the fifth quarterback taken when they chose him early in the third round out of Eastern Illinois, the school where Tony Romo played. Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL, launched his career at a junior college where coaches allowed his confident, free-wheeling style to flourish.
Wentz will become the latest. His unique background shaped him as he surpassed all the quarterbacks considered superior to him a short time ago. It may be instructive. It is also hard to believe.
“I’m gonna be real honest,” Wingenbach said. “It’s been unreal.”