CLEVELAND — Former North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance has a new football home. And it came somewhat as a surprise.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Lance at No. 3 overall Thursday, April 29, in the first round of the NFL Draft.
"I'm super excited. Blessed. And thankful for everyone who helped me get to this point," Lance said.
Pre-draft speculation had the Niners smitten with Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, but San Francisco made its selection quickly after it was on a 10-minute clock and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Lance's name shortly afterward.
Lance goes to a team that was a disappointing 6-10 in 2020, but went 13-3 and made the Super Bowl the previous year before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan made it known he was looking for an "elite" quarterback to take. Niners starter Jimmy Garoppolo has battled injuries in his four years with the team, despite leading them to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco pulled a stunning trade last month, dealing with the Miami Dolphins to obtain the third pick. The 49ers gave the Dolphins the 12th overall pick, plus first-round selections in 2022 and 2023 and a compensatory third-round choice in 2022.
"I'm super excited to get to work. Super excited to get to know my teammates and get in that locker room," Lance said. "They are going to get everything I got, I promise you that."
Lance played one full season at NDSU as a redshirt freshman in 2019, and parts of two others. He finished his 19-game career 192 of 287 passing (65.4%) for 2,947 yards and 30 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,325 yards and 18 TDs on 192 carries.
Lance famously threw just one collegiate interception, in NDSU's lone fall game in 2020. He went all of 2019, his only complete season, without throwing an interception in 16 games and 287 attempts.
Lance declared for the draft shortly after NDSU played one game last fall in a COVID-crippled college football season. He declined to come back for FCS's spring season, deciding instead that the 17 college games in which he started, excelled and went unbeaten was a good enough sample size for NFL teams.
He and his team weren't wrong.
Lance becomes the third straight Bison quarterback to be draft by the NFL and the second in five years to be taken in the top 3. Carson Wentz went second overall to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. Easton Stick, who succeeded Wentz and preceded Lance as NDSU's starter, went in the fifth round to the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019.
Like Wentz, Lance flew under the national recruiting radar in high school and wasn't viewed as a top draft pick as he began his Bison career. Lance played high school football at Marshall, Minn., becoming the starting quarterback in his sophomore season due to an injury to a senior. He received minimal interest from Football Bowl Subdivision programs, getting a late scholarship offer from Boise State.
Some Power Five programs, including Minnesota, wanted Lance to switch to safety in college.
NDSU coaches were happy to guarantee Lance would play quarterback, but even they declined to name him as the team's starter as a redshirt freshman until just 12 days before the 2019 season opener against Butler.
While most viewed the declared competition between Lance, Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland and Noah Sanders as window dressing, it highlighted the fact the powerful Bison were about hand over the keys to its offense to an unproven youngster. Lance had played in mop-up time in two games as a true freshman, not losing eligibility under NCAA rules, and showed flashes of his talent.
Questions about Lance's potential were erased in his starting debut, a 57-10 victory over Butler at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Lance scored the game's first touchdown on a 33-yard dash on NDSU's first possession and added a 61-yard scoring run in the third quarter. Both plays showed the strength and speed of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound athlete.
But it was Lance's 47-yard touchdown pass to Phoenix Sproles on the Bison's second possession that had NDSU head coach Matt Entz and his staff imagining the coming possibilities. Lance launched a perfect deep throw that Sproles ran under and caught while stretching out at the goal line.
The catch was fantastic, but the arm strength and accuracy of Lance was what had Entz saying later that was the play when the coach knew the quarterback was a special talent.
"I came in with a little bit of a mindset that I wanted to prove myself," Lance said after the game.
He kept on proving himself. NDSU went undefeated through the regular season and won three playoff games at the Fargodome, with Lance beginning to gain national attention for not throwing an interception as the Bison rolled to the national title game in Frisco, Texas.
Lance was named the Jerry Rice Award winner as the FCS's top freshman and was given the Walter Payton Award as the subdivision's top offensive player. Lance didn't attend the Payton banquet because the Bison were scheduled to play James Madison the next day for the national championship.
That game, televised nationally on ABC, became a showcase for the quarterback. Bison coaches game-planned around Lance's running ability, and he finished with 166 yards on 30 carries.
Lance's signature play was a 44-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Facing third down-and-23, Lance dropped back to pass but quickly sprinted up the middle and veered left to try and gain a first down.
Lance got much more than that. He outran James Madison's defenders and streaked into the end zone for a TD that game NDSU a 28-13 lead in a game it would hang on to win 28-20. Bison quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said after the game coaches called a play in hopes of getting into field-goal range and instead Lance's ability gave them a touchdown.
"He's a cut above," JMU coach Curt Cignetti said after the game.
When the COVID pandemic obliterated the FCS 2020 fall season, NDSU desperately tried to schedule several games to give Lance and its seniors a chance to play. The only game the Bison could schedule was an early October game against Central Arkansas at the Fargodome.
National pundits billed it as a vehicle to show off Lance, but it was never really that. And Lance's performance, at least in the passing game, fell flat. Lance finished 15 of 30 for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears, throwing the first interception of his college career.
His performance was particularly rugged in the first half when he was 6 of 16 for 47 yards. He was sharper in the second half, and broke the game open with his running ability. Lance finished with 143 yards rushing and two TDs, including a 54-yard scoring run on the second play of the third quarter.
Lance's stock in the eyes of analysts took a temporary hit, but it rebounded as the draft neared. His first pro day in mid-March drew representatives from 30 of 32 NFL teams and was carried live by the NFL Network.
Lance didn't disappoint, making several strong throws and impressing commentators on the broadcast.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Lance was "dripping with ability."
By the time Lance held a second pro day at the dome, he was again being projected to go in the top five and several pundits speculated he would go No. 3 overall to the 49ers because the team's coach and general manager were in Fargo for the workout.
Welcome to the Herd, kid.— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) September 15, 2018
Trey Lance sprints 44 yards to the house, capping his first collegiate drive with a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/6Ucxujm7x6