Iowa State may not be an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse, but the Cyclones do play in one of the BCS conferences and do have recruiting advantages even over an elite Football Championship Subdivision program such as North Dakota State.
Carson Wentz's first collegiate start came at Iowa State in front of 55,000 fans - a number significantly greater than the 19,000 that regularly fill the Fargodome to watch the Bison. It wasn't quite like Hickory High School walking into an Indianapolis arena for the state championship in Hoosiers - "I think you'll find the measurements the same as our gym back in Hickory" - but it had to be daunting for the quarterback.
Judging by his performance, Wentz wasn't overcome by the challenge. In fact, he owned it, as North Dakota State rallied from a 14-0 deficit and scored the next 34 points in the upset. It was the first time the then-21-year-old popped up on the radar for most NFL evaluators.
Wentz was still far from where he is now - poised to be selected by the Eagles with the No. 2 pick in the draft Thursday. He would go on to have better games with gaudier statistics against FCS (formerly Division I-AA) programs, but that performance was an indicator for some NFL teams that Wentz could eventually handle a jump greater than his FBS counterparts will have to endure.
"If you haven't spent time with a guy like Carson Wentz, it's hard from the outside looking in," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last week, two days before his team traded up for the second pick. "You probably may go, 'North Dakota State, smaller school, might be an issue.'
"But when you finally get him and get him into your building and get your hands on him, have a chance to visit with him, talk to him, and just break it down, this kid's pretty impressive."
A quarterback's mental capabilities are, of course, significant. But they're more difficult to project. What the Iowa State victory displayed was a physicality that scouts could easily translate to the pros.
"That's my region, and I wasn't there [in person]," an NFL area scout said. "But I had heard of Wentz, and when I saw the score, I went and watched the tape. I don't think he even threw for a [touchdown], but the arm strength popped off the screen. He could make the throws - outs, ins, posts, screens, back shoulders, you name it.
"But what caught the eye was the athleticism. He . . . hurdled a dude and then ran another 20 yards."
Wentz rushed for 38 yards on eight carries against the Cyclones. He averaged 8.7 carries in 23 starts over his final two seasons. Many were on designed plays or off the zone-read. Wentz likely won't run as much in the NFL, but of the scouts interviewed for this story, each noted that his athleticism would be more valuable in the pocket against the rush and as utilized by Pederson's West Coast offense.
"Wentz, to me, gives [the Eagles] a little more size [than California's Jared Goff] and the ability to do some things on the move that they've historically liked there, with Doug Pederson being under Andy Reid," said the NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles scout. "They really value that movement skill."
Despite his size (6-foot-5, 237 pounds), Wentz can move. He ran a 4.77-second 40-yard dash at the combine and finished no lower than the 84th percentile in the 20-yard shuttle, the three-cone drill, and the broad jump.
His film is full of highlights of him escaping pressure with agility or strength. He wasn't shy about contact. In the national championship game win over Jacksonville State in January, after he sat out eight games with a broken wrist, Wentz shook a would-be tackler and dove just inside the pylon for a touchdown.
"I like his ability to elevate in big games and put the team on his back," an NFC personnel director said. "Plus, he has that tough, gritty, Philly thing about him. He directed comebacks on more than one occasion."
NFL Network's Mike Mayock and ESPN's Jon Gruden both noted a game against Northern Iowa in which Wentz tossed the game-winning 18-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining. Wentz threw the ball into double coverage, and his receiver made a nimble grab, but the ball was in the only place it could have been caught.
"I was like, 'Holy crap, that is a great tape,' " Mayock said.
The competition for North Dakota State, though, just isn't the same as for BCS schools. The games are slower. The defenses aren't as complex. And the players aren't as reliable - and that goes both ways.
"The guys he's throwing to and the guys he's throwing against are different," Gruden said. "Hard to study it, hard to say, 'Can this kid do it at the next level?' But I did see Carson Wentz in the Senior Bowl on the practice field, and the few reps that he had in the game . . . and [he] looked like he belonged there."
The latter rounds of the draft are full of FCS quarterback gambles that almost never hit for long odds. There have been small-school success stories, of course, but never one drafted as high as No. 2. Steve McNair (Alcorn State) was selected third overall in 1995.
Joe Flacco (Delaware) was chosen 18th overall in 2008. Josh McCown (Sam Houston State) was a third-round selection. Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) and Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) went undrafted.
"Kurt Warner, we had in Green Bay. Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Mike Holmgren, and myself, we cut Kurt Warner," Gruden said. "That just goes to show you this is not a perfect science."
And scientists prefer to work with a large sample size. Wentz, who sat behind Brock Jensen for his first two seasons, threw only 566 passes in 23 career starts. He completed 63 percent of his throws, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, and tossed 42 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, but there were enough ill-advised moments to give pause.
"He sometimes locks into his first read or will try to force throws into tight spaces," an NFC executive said. "That's how he threw two of his interceptions in the title [game]. I like him but don't love him, and I didn't see enough at the Senior Bowl."
Wentz was clearly the best quarterback in Mobile, Ala. (Goff declined an invitation.) He showed that he could handle stiffer competition and make the necessary throws. A number of his on-target passes in practices and the game were dropped. But the Senior Bowl is hardly competitive.
"I don't care about Division I-AA. For me, that's gone," Mayock said. "But because he's had only 23 starts, that's less than half as many throws as Jared Goff, less than half as many throws as [Michigan's State's] Connor Cook. So he doesn't have as many reps . . . and he needs to process information more quickly, and he needs to get the ball out more quickly."
Wentz should have time - at least a year as he sits behind Sam Bradford. And, unlike so many college quarterbacks, he's the product of a pro-style offense. The Bison huddled and had Wentz take the snap from under center. The scheme had multiple personnel groupings, formations, and shifts.
And, perhaps most important, Wentz, who scored a 40 on the Wonderlic test at the NFL combine, had the luxury to make checks at the line of scrimmage based on his presnap reading of a defense.
"He has more freedom at the line of scrimmage for a college quarterback than just about anybody I've seen since Andrew Luck," Mayock said. "He changes the plays. He's never gotten a 'B' in school. He's intelligent. He's got a great work ethic. He loves the game of football."
He seemingly has it all. But playing in the FCS means it's harder to make a projection for him.