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Carson Wentz 2014 WIU Ball Back Throw

Long before he was suiting up for the Washington Commanders, Carson Wentz was leading the NDSU Bison to championships with his leadership, grit and will to win.

By Zach Selby
Sept. 06, 2022

For the first time in more than two years, the auditorium at the Washington Commanders' home facility was packed with reporters and employees anxious to get the first look at the organization's future.

The last time there were that many people in the room was 2020 -- a few months before working from home was a foreign concept to most and the word "zoom" hadn't yet entered our cultural lexicon -- when Ron Rivera first laid out his plan to turn Washington, which hasn't had a winning record since 2016, back into a playoff contender.

It seemed fitting that the next time reporters were in the room was for the team to unveil the next, and most important, part of that plan.

Carson Wentz, freshly traded from the Indianapolis Colts, had an ear-to-ear smile on his face as he was introduced by Rivera. As he walked up to the podium wearing a burgundy shirt and a yellow jacket, he at least looked the part of being the Commanders' next signal-caller.

"Well, I had the jacket," Wentz said. "I didn't know it would come in handy here. It was NDSU [North Dakota State University] colors and my wife did a good job of finding me this shirt that matched. So yeah, that's what went into it. Feel good in it, too."

It's fortuitous that Wentz dug out that jacket for the next phase of his career, but it's one corner of his past that many Burgundy & Gold fans aren't as well-versed. Washington fans have certainly witnessed plenty of Wentz over the years. They got a good look at what Wentz could be during his five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles after being the 2016 No. 2 overall pick.

“I put my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may. That's the mindset I've had ever since I was in college playing ball and got to the league, so that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna put my head down, work, build relationships and hopefully look up at the end of the year and be happy with the result.” Carson Wentz

But before he was holding up a midnight green jersey in Chicago, he was one of the most recognizable faces associated with NDSU football.

Wentz, who first picked up a football in Bismarck, North Dakota, was only the starter for two seasons with the Bison, but he did plenty to leave his mark on the program: two national championships; All-America honors from several outlets; single-season records in passing attempts, completions, yards and total offense per game; and not to mention multiple academic accolades.

Wentz plans to bring that talent with him to Washington, which is banking on him being the right quarterback to help it reach the postseason for the second time in three seasons. But Wentz is coming with more than a bunch of old records and a flashy gold jacket; he's bringing steadfast leadership as well as a gritty desire to win and to help his teammates succeed.

Wentz is known for those traits as well, and they were first developed as a kid trying to make a name for himself at NDSU.

"I put my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may," Wentz said. "That's the mindset I've had ever since I was in college playing ball and got to the league, so that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna put my head down, work, build relationships and hopefully look up at the end of the year and be happy with the result."

“I think we knew we had something"

Wentz wasn't the only member of his family to get NDSU's attention, and he wasn't the first, either.

Back when Wentz was playing for Bismarck Century High School -- about three hours from NDSU's campus -- it was his older brother, Zach, that first enticed the Bison.

Zach was an all-around athlete for the Governors, playing quarterback and linebacker. He appeared in the Montana/North Dakota all-star game during his senior year after passing for 2,226 yards and accounting for 21 touchdowns.

Zach's heart was more set on baseball, though, and despite some efforts by the football staff to make him a two-sport athlete, he went on to be a pitcher/infielder for the Bison.

Brent Vigen, then offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for NDSU, was aware that Zach had a brother, Carson, but he didn't know much about him. In fact, they didn't do much recruiting at all on Carson. They didn't even push him to attend their summer camp, which, as Vigen said, "sounds crazy" considering the state of how recruiting is done today.

“I think we knew we had something. It was raw, but we really had something with just this combination of his physical skills and then kind of who he was as a person.” Brent Vigen

The first time Vigen spoke to Wentz was when he was invited to an NDSU game during his senior year.

"It was unorthodox recruiting, needless to say, where you don't meet a kid until he comes to a game in the fall," Vigen said.

Once Vigen started paying more attention to Wentz, he noticed there was a lot to like about him. He clearly had the right tools; he was an all-state quarterback who led his team to an 8-3 record and a trip to the semifinals.

"I kind of came out of nowhere to a lot of teams," Wentz said. "But it felt right [with NDSU] when they started talking to me. It felt like home. And honestly...I wanted to compete for championships, and I wanted to win."

But there were other parts of Wentz that stuck out to Vigen even more. "He believed in himself more than anyone believed in him," Vigen said, and Wentz's willingness to fill whatever role required of him on his high school basketball team also impressed him.

That, along with his high level of intelligence, convinced NDSU to pursue him further even though they already had a commitment at quarterback. They officially gave Wentz an offer in December of his senior year.

"I think we knew we had something," Vigen said. "It was raw, but we really had something with just this combination of his physical skills and then kind of who he was as a person."

“He’s a very quick learner and a smart guy"

There were a few things that were in the way of Wentz putting himself in the starting lineup for the Bison.

For one, Wentz simply needed time to develop. Given how unusual Wentz's recruitment was, Vigen didn't see him throw in person until his first day of practice. The talent was there, but so were the limitations. His fundamentals needed a tune up in order to get him on the field.

Second, NDSU already had a starting quarterback, Brock Jensen, who happened to be the best the program ever had from a statistical standpoint. Name a record, and Jensen's name was likely etched next to it. He finished his career with more wins than any quarterback in FCS history, and that included three straight national championships along with NDSU career records for passing attempts, completions, yards, touchdown passes, total offense, attempts and yards.

So, Wentz had some time to develop before getting his chance. The big question Wentz had to answer was whether he could hone the rest of his skill set to do all the things a quarterback needs to do. Fortunately, there were some foundational pieces for him to build on.

Let's start with the obvious: his arm strength. It's a trait that Wentz has been known for throughout his professional career, but Vigen said that, even as a freshman, Wentz was able to make throws that were out of the ordinary that "the next kid probably couldn't make." It led to what Vigen called "competitive risk-taking," which could be a blessing in the right circumstances.

“The way he ran, his stride was so long. His arms were so long. It's not like he had a bunch of zip on the ball. But since he was so long and lanky and broad, he was just very smooth with the way that he threw the ball and moved around the field.” Zach Vraa

Vigen wanted Wentz to fine tune that skill, so he challenged the young quarterback to round out the rest of his game while working on the scout team.

"He had to rely on a more consistent lower body to be able to improve his accuracy," Vigen said. "It was about just being more consistent and really working on his lower body mechanics."

Wentz had a knack for understanding the game, too. He always seemed to be one step ahead of where a normal underclassman was supposed to be, not just in the meeting room, but also on the field.

"He's a very quick learner and a smart guy," said former Bison wide receiver Zach Vraa. "He took from the other quarterbacks [and] learned a lot from them. I think once he just studied more and more that's when his game kind of progressed from just being an athlete into a really good football player."

Vraa was a sophomore when Wentz first joined NDSU and was on the scout team with the quarterback. Vraa dealt with injuries early in his career, so their time together early on was brief, but the chemistry they built proved to be invaluable once they both became starters.

Vraa learned quickly that Wentz could sling the ball downfield with ease, but what impressed him more was how Wentz worked in the pocket. He described Wentz's operation with one word: "smooth."

"The way he ran, his stride was so long. His arms were so long. It's not like he had a bunch of zip on the ball. But since he was so long and lanky and broad, he was just very smooth with the way that he threw the ball and moved around the field."

By the time he was a sophomore, Wentz had undergone a significant change, developing from an intriguing prospect to a rare talent. He learned how to throw different passes and how to work with his receivers to thrive within the offense.

That led to him getting snaps as the backup quarterback, although he still had to wait another year before he would be considered as the starter. NDSU went on to win its third national championship, and Jensen set school records for passing yards (2,793), passing touchdowns (34) and total offense yards (3,272).

Jensen never allowed the possibility of Wentz taking over as the starter to creep into anyone's mind while he was there, although it could be argued that Wentz was ready to be the primary signal-caller. Vigen said Wentz pushed Jensen, and he credits Wentz for a lot of the success Jensen had in their time together.

Despite being confident in his own ability, Wentz was patient and continued to work on his skill set.

"It's so unique," Vigen said. "Just his mindset of understanding that, 'Hey, I love being part of this team. My time will come, but if it comes sooner than it might because of graduation, I'm gonna be as ready as I possibly can.' I think that's a pretty rare quality. I don't think it hardly would exist in today's world."

“He really knew football"

It was a frigid Sunday in January of 2014 in Fargo, North Dakota, and Randy Hedberg was patiently waiting to meet his new starting quarterback.

The Bison had just wrapped up a convincing national championship game against Towson. It was a time of monumental change for the program. Jensen was graduating and would eventually pursue a professional career, and defensive coordinator Chris Klieman was named the head coach in place of Craig Bohl, who had departed for Wyoming.

Vigen joined Bohl at Wyoming, and Hedberg was slated to take his place. It wasn't his first time interacting with Wentz; the two had spoken while Hedberg was coaching at Southern Illinois, which offered Wentz a scholarship that he ultimately turned down.

This was the first time they had met in person, though, and since Wentz was going to be the starting quarterback going forward, he wanted to get started on their relationship early.

"It was pretty impressive," Hedberg said of their first conversation. "He was one of those guys that had a personality. It was pretty apparent that he was a pretty good leader. That's the impression I got. Guys responded to him, and they reacted in a very favorable way with him."

And Wentz was just as impressed with his new offensive coordinator.

"He was really helpful," Wentz said. "At the same time, it was the same offense for me, and he was learning it as a new coach. So, I was trying to help him understand how I see things and gaining insight and wisdom on how he's done things over the years."

Hedberg could tell that Wentz was ready to be the starter. Wentz had already done most of the preparation in his years as a backup. His deep ball accuracy needed some work, but they smoothed that out by watching film on Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees so Wentz could get a firmer grasp on when to release his passes so they were more catchable for college receivers.

Wentz had the intelligence needed to handle Hedberg's plans, though, and that was what mattered most.

"He really knew football," Hedberg said. "He was very fluent to getting protection checks seeing coverages and where to go with the football and all that sort of thing right away."

Wentz learned much of that by working with and getting to know his receivers. It was something Vraa got to experience firsthand from their days on the scout team. There were times during seven-on-seven drills when Wentz delivered the ball on target right as Vraa was turning his head at the top of a route.

“That’s where I started gaining such a trust [in him] because of his preparation. I think young players...don’t necessarily know how to devise a plan, but to be able to talk about formations, whether you want to be in open or want to be in tight formations, he just always had a really good feel for that based on the looks that he was looking at.” Tim Polasek

Now, as the starter, Wentz had to build that bond with more people, and Vraa said he had no problem going out of his way to improve relationships.

"We were able to give him our preferences and he was able to just kind of play along with that and help us win at the end of the day, which was really nice instead of just him throwing it and we have to kind of guess where it's going," Vraa said.

Wentz's first game as a starter was against Iowa State, and Wentz threw for 204 yards while leading the offense to 34 unanswered point to claim the victory.

"It felt like of like a long time coming," Wentz said. "I'd been in school for three years waiting for this moment. There was a lot of excitement. I felt like I had a lot of natural leadership, but I was the backup, so I couldn't quite be myself. I felt like a lot of that kind of came out, and I finally got to be what I felt like I was called to do."

Wentz took that knowledge into the meeting rooms, and it helped set the standard for how NDSU quarterbacks ran the offense after him. He had input on what the offense did on third downs and in the red zone during practice, and that carried over to game day.

That's not to say that Wentz was giving out 25 play calls per game and superseding the coaching staff. He was respectful of what offensive coordinator Tim Polasek was calling and would run it without hesitation, but he would offer suggestions on how they could attack defenses.

"That's where I started gaining such a trust [in him] because of his preparation," Polasek said. "I think young players...don't necessarily know how to devise a plan, but to be able to talk about formations, whether you want to be in open or want to be in tight formations, he just always had a really good feel for that based on the looks that he was looking at."

And Wentz appreciated how much input he was allowed to have. It was a back-and-forth relationship that he and the coaches had to find the best way to approach the game plan each week.

"That's how you get stuff done," Wentz said. "I think there is such thing as a healthy conflict or healthy disagreements if you can communicate without an ego, um, to try and learn and understand better. Sometimes I'm wrong, and I'll admit when I'm wrong. Oftentimes there's more than one right answer in this game. So I think it was healthy to have that dynamic."

Wentz paired that knowledge with his natural athleticism, and that mixture showed often on the field. He completed 228-of-358 passes for 3,111 yards -- all single-season school records -- with 25 touchdowns and led the Bison to another national championship. It was one of the best seasons a Bison quarterback has ever had, but there were moments where his mixture of savvy and athleticism stood out among the rest.

There was a particular play where the Bison would run a route combination that forced the safety to choose between the slot receiver, who would run a go route, or Vraa, the outside receiver, who would run across the field.

As it became clear that Vraa would be Wentz's top option on the play, he turned and saw three defenders between him and Wentz. Vraa immediately thought there was no way the pass would be complete, but Wentz scrambled, zipped the ball between all three players and hit Vraa for a gain.

"After that play, I'm thinking to myself, 'if this guy can scramble, throw a ball between three defenders and somehow hit a receiver dead on, he's got a future," Vraa said.

"We had faith in him”

NDSU's quarterbacks aren't likely to lead college football in passing yards. That simply isn't the way the Bison run their offense. It's a more balanced attack that doesn't put everything on the quarterback's shoulders.

When it comes to quarterback play, the most important thing to NDSU's coaches is whether they won the game. If so, then they had good quarterback play.

Wentz was exceptional at that, particularly when it came to winning games in the final two minutes.

"I think confidence plays a big role," Polasek said. "I always felt good about his knowledge, his understanding of that situation. And then ultimately that comes down to really believing in your teammates and the work that you put in at that time."

Confidence has never been in short supply with Wentz. He believes he's going to make every play, Hedberg said, and he did for the most part. One play that stuck in Polasak's mind came during the season opener against Montana, when Wentz checked out of one personnel grouping and into another before running for a touchdown.

"I remember saying to the head coach [Klieman] over the headset, 'We're gonna be in good shape,'" Polasek said.

Two-minute drills were when Wentz had more freedom to call plays himself. Polasek said Wentz had a firm grasp of knowing what he liked in their inventory of plays and was comfortable in orchestrating them.

That comfortability gave his teammates confidence that he could get them in the end zone when it mattered most.

"We knew that he was such a smart guy, and he could call plays on the fly," Vraa said. "He was at the point [in] his senior year where he didn't really have to rely on our offensive coordinator or head coach to call a play. We had faith in him."

For Wentz, the mindset is simple in those situations: just go win.

"Find a way," Wentz said. "I think it's not always gonna look pretty, and quite frankly, you just forget everything that happened, whether it's good or bad."

Wentz added that there is not a lot of overthinking in those situations. He is just lining up, playing fast and cutting things loose.

"For me, it's...any means necessary within reason. Protect myself, but by any means necessary, whether that's a check down or taking shots, I'm gonna get my team in the end zone."

Most of NDSU's games during Wentz's college career ended with the Bison winning handedly, but there were some moments where Wentz had to pull out wins in the final moments. One of the most memorable came in the second round of the 2014 FCS playoffs against South Dakota State, when he led NDSU on an eight-play, 76-yard drive and threw a game-winning touchdown that Hedberg describes as the best play he's seen in his 40 years of coaching

"It was so slow motion-like," Hedberg said. "But the precision and execution was so great on it."

There was another -- this time against Northern Iowa in NDSU's homecoming the following season -- that was just as memorable. It wasn't just because of the throw, which was an 18-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman Darrius Shepherd with 35 seconds left; it was also special because of the reaction it received in the booth.

"I remember an NFL scout...turned to us when the touchdown was thrown and caught, raised his arms up in the air like, 'what a play,'" Hedberg said.

Wentz held the matte burgundy Washington helmet and posed for photos after his press conference at the Commanders' facility. There was a lot to smile about through the whirlwind that occurred from the moment he received the news that he was on the move again to addressing the Washington media.

The thing that made him the happiest: it was clear from the moment he arrived that he was wanted.

"Feeling that support from everybody in the organization means a lot," Wentz said. "It allows you to go play confidently freely, which I think ultimately will allow me to play my best ball and try and elevate everybody around me to the full extent that I can. And I look forward to doing that."

What should we expect from Wentz as he joins a team that is craving to be back in the playoff discussion? A lot of people have made the decision already, and they've loudly proclaimed it to the football masses, for better or worse.

There are several factors that point to the 2022 season being a great chapter for the team and Wentz himself. He has a young, talented group of receivers, the best of which just signed an extension, a running back that finished with the second-most rushing yards in the NFC, a solid offensive line and a defense that is brimming with first-round talent up front.

The people who have coached and played alongside him have no doubts about what he can do.

"He's gonna do anything it takes to win," Vraa said. "He's gonna bring the team together. Even if he's not having success on the field, he's definitely gonna be able to bring the team together, build relationships and have people trust him. And I feel like at a quarterback position, that's really what you need."

There are some certainties about how Wentz will operate under center for the Commanders. He's going to establish bonds with his receivers to help them succeed. His NDSU coaches and teammates described him as having a "serving mentality," so he's going to do whatever he can to put them in the best position.

He's also going to work with offensive coordinator Scott Turner and the rest of the Commanders' coaches on a game plan that helps Washington win games. He'll use his own experience to provide input on how they can put up points and move downfield, but he'll rely on the coaches to craft a plan that works for everyone.

And when Washington needs someone to make a play, he won't shy away from calling his own number. He will be confident in his skill set, and that will spread to the rest of the team.

The Commanders believe they can take a step forward this season. They're going to need all those qualities from Wentz to do it.

"You're gonna get a guy that's committed to the Commanders," Hedberg said. "Every game that he is out there, he's gonna give you everything he has. There's no question about that."

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