MOBILE, Ala. — When it comes to developing quarterbacking prospects for the NFL, it’s certainly not a requirement to play at a Power 5 college program.
Citing the NFL’s top 30 leaders in all-time passing yards, seven quarterbacks (Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Dave Krieg, Jim Hart, Steve DeBerg, Tony Romo, Phil Simms) attended schools outside the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
However, when it comes to making high-pressure, career-defining decisions on non-Power 5 quarterbacks, well, that’s where things get tricky.
Take the unique case of North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. The 23-year-old quarterback is projected to be a high-end, first-round pick in the upcoming draft (top 5? top 10?), despite the lack of top-notch competition at the collegiate level (FCS).
Regarding Wentz, yes, he has the requisite size (6-foot-6), speed (extremely nimble) and arm strength (powerful) to play in the NFL. And yes, he shepherded the Bison to back-to-back national championships in 2014 and ’15.
However, NDSU also won the previous three national titles at the FCS level — prior to Wentz becoming the entrenched starter — creating the impression that North Dakota State’s annual dominance goes beyond the quarterbacking realm.
“I think there’s obviously a lot of doubt coming from the FCS level, and I just want to address that right away, prove that I can play at a high level, play at a fast level, compete with these guys and really excel,” said Wentz, who’ll be showcasing his talents in Saturday’s Senior Bowl. “I have the mental and physical abilities to play at this level, and I’m really excited to prove it.”
Therein lies the difficulty of making definitive judgments about Wentz — or any other non-Power 5 prospect — during a single week of Senior Bowl practices.
Take a look at the 20-plus SEC players here in Mobile. They don’t have to prove themselves as being more than practice marvels. The NFL scouts, coaches and personnel directors already know they can perform at a high level.
The scouts aren’t terribly worried about the differences between straight-line speed and “game” speed with SEC players, either. That comes from a two-, three- or four-year buildup of marquee games against NFL-caliber competition within the SEC and other Power 5 conferences.
“I play in the SEC, and that’s as fast as you’re going to get in college,” says Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison, when asked to compare the ‘speed’ differences between SEC life and the Senior Bowl talent.
But Wentz doesn’t have that luxury of knowing just how fast … fast is. At least until he lines up against the speedy South squad.
“A lot of people kind of compare (NDSU) to Alabama of the FCS,” says Wentz, who accounted for 4,500-plus passing yards and 47 total touchdowns in his final two seasons. “Our conferences are really tough and say ‘we’re like the SEC of the FCS’ … so a lot of comparison based on the winning culture and the tradition that we have. Football is huge in our state.”
It must be a nerve-racking time to be an executive for a quarterback-needy NFL franchise — like the Cleveland Browns (No. 2 overall pick), San Francisco 49ers (No. 7), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 13), Los Angeles Rams … and maybe even the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons (seeking down-the-road replacements for Tony Romo and Matt Ryan, respectively).
Wentz may cut the figure of a potential NFL star when walking off the team bus, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll fare against supreme competition. The Bison whipped Iowa State in 2014 … but the quarterback accounted for only 204 yards passing and zero touchdowns that day.
As such, it’s fair to wonder how Wentz would have fared as an SEC quarterback, perhaps at South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, LSU or Auburn?
Speaking of Auburn, there’s another layer of doubt surrounding Wentz — and it has nothing to do with his direct output at North Dakota State.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch — who’s also slated to be a Round 1 draft selection this spring — had disparate outings against SEC clubs this season:
On Oct. 17, Lynch (6,807 yards passing, 65 total TDs for 2014-15) torched Ole Miss for 384 yards passing (74-percent completion rate) and three touchdowns in the Tigers’ upset victory.
But on Dec. 30 (Birmingham Bowl), with Lynch still riding high from a seven-TD outing against SMU in the regular-season finale, the Auburn defense stifled the coveted prospect, holding him to 106 yards passing and one touchdown. (The Memphis QB elected to turn pro immediately after the humbling defeat.)
All this begs the rhetorical question: Is it better for blue-chip prep recruits to avoid the potential pratfalls of the SEC and create the perception of long-term viability with pro scouts … or sign with an SEC program and hopefully improve over time — but only after an inescapable trial-by-fire period?
Wentz will get a small taste of that SEC meat grinder on Saturday, and it could be a make-or-break experience.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.