It was an overall meaningless snap in an October 2018 blowout win. But it told then-North Dakota State football coach Chris Klieman all he needed to know about a young quarterback whose meteoric rise later took him from under-recruited high schooler to the next face of one of the NFL’s marquee franchises in less than three years' time.
With the Bison leading the host South Dakota Coyotes 45-14 and with starting quarterback Easton Stick’s day done, Trey Lance was receiving his second career taste of college football. Facing a first-and-10 at the Coyotes’ 23-yard line, the Bison were set up to run A-gap Power with their talented true freshman under center.
Lance took the snap but fumbled it. Where most true freshmen either would have elected to fall on the ball or go off-script, Lance, a tireless student of the game, stuck to the play. He scooped up the ball, followed his fullback through the hole and then showed off the rare athleticism that would become one of his pre-draft calling cards, gliding 23 yards to the end zone for what was, all-in-all, an effortless score.
It was then, on a garbage-time touchdown from an 18-year-old true freshman quarterback, that Klieman knew Lance was destined for greatness.
“I know the center and the guard who were snapping it, blocking back and pulling were like, ‘How the heck did he end up with the football and scoring a touchdown?’ ” Klieman recently told NBC Sports Bay Area. “But he knew exactly where the play was supposed to hit. He hit it as fast as any running back I’ve ever seen, and he outran everyone to the end zone.
"I looked at one of our coaches and said, ‘That is one special talented kid who is going to have a phenomenal career.’ ”
Two and a half years after he showed up in Fargo, North Dakota, as the heir apparent at an FCS powerhouse with a long lineage of championship quarterback play, Lance was tabbed as the answer to San Francisco's two-decades-long search for its next franchise signal-caller.
When Steve Young’s career ended after the 1999 season because of repeated concussions, the 49ers set off to find the next quarterback to carry their banner. Eighteen years after Young’s storied NFL career ended, the 49ers swung a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, believing they’d acquired a true franchise quarterback for a second-round pick -- a relative coup as far as price is concerned.
Ten February minutes in Miami changed everything. Six hundred ticks of the clock stood between Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan announcing themselves as the NFL’s newest power couple after slaying Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
A defensive fourth-quarter collapse and a horrific Garoppolo overthrow, however, sent coach and quarterback into the bowels of Hard Rock Stadium on divergent paths. Sixteen months later, Shanahan sat at a podium alongside 49ers general manager John Lynch smiling from ear to ear after drafting Garoppolo’s successor -- someone they believe can deliver multiple Super Bowl titles to the Bay.
"I love his natural ability to play the position," Shanahan said of Lance. "Then when you add in a type of running element, which I've always been intrigued with, but when you've got a guy with the skill sets as far as speed and size, to where you're not going to make him a runner, but if you can get in certain formations where the defense knows you will run him if they don't honor him, now everything is different. If you can ever get a guy like that and make 11-on-11 football, then I think you got a guy who can change some things for you.
“But it always comes down to, yeah, you can dabble in that, but you better be confident they can do everything else. He has played a year of football, it was at a smaller school, so that does take work. You're not going to see it all, so that's why it is a hard process, and that's why there is no guarantees for any of us.
"So, it's about believing.”
Belief is essential when making any franchise-altering decision, but it’s imperative when tying your future and reputation to a quarterback who has just 17 collegiate starts and only turned 21 on May 9.
Being drafted to be the face of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises can be a heavy burden. That weight can feel even heavier when the team is equipped to win now, as the 49ers are.
But a look back at Lance’s football career shows you he not only is well-equipped to handle a high-pressure environment — and do so with a level of control normally exhibited by a famous British Secret Service agent known his love of martinis — but he has thrived when the stakes are the highest at every level.
“The composure that he has is rare,” current North Dakota State coach Matt Entz, who won an FCS national championship with Lance in 2019, told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I think Trey has a great balance in his life. He is a young man who is rooted in his faith, which allows him to keep both feet on the ground. He is able to avoid the noise, and knows there are very few people who he has to go out there and get approval from, and he’s going to go out there and compete and do the best that he can.
“I think there is something about that, when an athlete goes out there and has clarity in the field of competition and he does and part of that is because he trusts his preparation. He believes he prepares better than anyone out there, and I think that is a unique advantage he has, especially in this world of hurry up, get the signals from the sideline.
"There are very few quarterbacks -- especially his age -- that are properly equipped like he is to watch film and be able to decipher what he likes offensively. Whereas you see a lot of quarterbacks nowadays are told what to run from the sideline. and they just execute plays. They don’t see coverages or understand rotations or fronts, or those things. He does.”
Growing up in Marshall, Minn., Lance didn’t start out as a quarterback prodigy like NFL draft classmates Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. He was a running back in his early years before asking to try out as a quarterback as a freshman at Marshall High School.
Marshall coach Terry Bahlmann always had assumed running back was the position Lance fancied. While Lance picked up the position quickly, he wasn’t part of Bahlmann’s plans early on, with Thomas Fischer having the job locked up.
Lance’s desire to prove people wrong is deeply ingrained in him. He worked tirelessly in the weight room and the film room and on the practice field to show growth at the sport’s most important position.
“Every day, Trey worked on improving, whether it was in the weight room or film study,“ Bahlmann told NBC Sports Bay Area. "He is the guy who has probably put more time in watching film than any person we have ever had. Just improving his techniques. He is just intrinsically motivated and just had a deep desire to be great."
Lance waited patiently at Marshall, and his time came during his sophomore season when Fischer broke his arm in Week 8 of the 2015 campaign.
From that point, there was no turning back for Lance. He went 16-0 in the regular season and 7-3 in the playoffs in his career, leading Marshall to its first Minnesota State Tournament appearance since 1991.
High school football in Small Town, USA is a pressure cooker you only can understand from lived experience. Leading your town to its first State Tournament appearance in a quarter-century can be a heavy burden, and the journey almost always ends in heartbreak.
Lance’s sophomore season ended in a playoff loss in which he and his running back had three fumbled exchanges at the mesh point.
Bahlmann remembers Lance sitting on the bench long after the clock expired that night. He took the loss hard but used it as motivation to elevate his game. Lance’s storied prep career ended with 3,026 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns (a school record), 1,177 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns.
While Lance’s physical abilities and football IQ stood out, especially at the high school level, Lance’s most impressive skill was something that also attracted the Bison and the 49ers down the road.
“The great thing is that he is not afraid to lead,” Bahlmann said. “He is going to be calm. Maybe he gets nervous on the inside, but he carries it so well that his demeanor is going to be the same if things are going well or poorly. He is going to be the leader that everybody wants and the face that everyone is confident in.”
As the Power Five schools recruited Lance to come and play defensive back, Klieman saw the next in a long line of Bison championship quarterbacks motivated to be great.
“He’s so competitive. He was competitive in everything he did growing up,” Klieman said. "That’s the biggest thing is you want someone who wants to compete in everything he does, whether it’s a weight workout, whether it’s a board game, to 7-on-7 to 1-on-1 stuff in the weight room.
"It doesn’t matter, he just loves to compete. That’s not rare, but it’s not typical. You love kids that refuse to lose. … The expectation is to win. Winners win. And that’s what you are going to get with Trey. He’s a winner.”
By the mid-2010s, North Dakota State was the elite FCS program. From 2011 to 2019, the Bison won eight of nine national championships, and seamlessly transitioned from Carson Wentz to Easton Stick and finally to Lance, who went 16-0 in his lone full season as starting quarterback.
Lance arrived in Fargo in a similar situation to the one he now finds himself in with the 49ers. He was there to learn from Stick, absorb everything and be ready to take over in 2019.
For someone as talented as Lance, it would be easy to regard being a backup in a negative light. That’s not how Lance is wired, though, and Klieman expects him to take the same approach in San Francisco behind Garoppolo as he did with Stick.
“He just wants to learn,” Klieman said of how Lance approached his role as an understudy. “He’s confident in his abilities, don’t get me wrong. But he is humble enough to know that he is still learning. He is humble enough to know he still has to improve and he doesn’t have all the answers, and he wants to take all the information in.
"I see it happening the same way in San Francisco. I know he’s the No. 3 pick in the draft, but he is a very, very humble person, and he’ll learn and will prepare himself for when the opportunity arises. He will be ready to capitalize and cash in on it.”
Stick led the Bison to a 15-0 record and the FCS national championship. Klieman left that offseason for Kansas State, with Lance and Entz in proper position to keep the Bison train rolling.
They did just that during the 2019 season.
Sixteen wins, 2,786 passing yards, 1,100 rushing yards, 42 total touchdowns, zero interceptions and zero losses later, Lance had led the Bison to their eighth national title in nine seasons and rocketed up NFL draft boards as a quarterback with rare athletic tools, unmatched football IQ and an outstanding work ethic.
“The thing that Trey has, especially as a 20- or 21-year-old, is everything from the shoulders above,” Entz said of what makes Lance special. “Extremely, extremely intelligent. Extremely composed. Seldom gets rattled but highly competitive at the same time. Has that inner drive to be the best at his job but also to make sure the people around him know they have to perform as well. His leadership skills are above and beyond what you would think a 20-year-old would have.”
The COVID-19 pandemic zapped Lance from playing a full 2020 season. North Dakota State played one game in the fall, beating Central Arkansas, but couldn't find any other takers for fall games with the FCS season pushed back until spring.
Lance finished his collegiate career with a 17-0 record as a starter, declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft and joining Lawrence, Fields, Mac Jones and Zach Wilson in an extremely talented quarterback class.
The draft process is long and arduous, and always ends with top prospects facing knocks that weren’t there when the journey began. For Lance, his limited tape and “small-school competition” led a number of scouts and draft experts to drop him below Jones, Fields and Wilson in their quarterback evaluation.
But Shanahan saw something different. He saw an intelligent football weapon with the ability and drive to take one of the NFL’s most potent offenses and elevate to a level Garoppolo could not. With Lance’s top-level arm talent, rushing ability and smarts, the possibilities were limitless, and the decision, in the end, was relatively easy for Shanahan and Lynch.
Shanahan and Lynch have built a Super Bowl-caliber roster, and hand-picked Lance as the final, most important piece of that championship puzzle.
The margins between afterthought and immortality are razor thin in the NFL. Just ask Garoppolo, who was 10 minutes away from being one half of the NFL’s next dynastic pairing, along with Shanahan.
Shanahan and Lynch elected to take their destiny into their own hands. They didn’t want to leave anything to chance. No what-ifs or could-have-beens.
They’ll forever be tied to Lance. His success will be a signal of their genius. All stumbles and failures will be an indictment of their judgment.
The pressure on a young kid from Marshall, Minn., to live up to the hype and deliver multiple titles will be intense, the noise deafening. NFL history is littered with talented quarterbacks who were drafted to deliver marquee franchises back to their former glory, only to be crushed by the pressure cooker they entered.
Klieman doesn’t expect that to affect Lance. He is built to cut through the pressure just as he carves up defenses.
For many, being drafted is the culmination of a journey to the top. But Lance won’t look at it that way. This isn’t the final step of the ladder, but the first.
“He’s not worried about what the outside world thinks of him,” Klieman said. “He’s not worried about what Twitter thinks. He just worried about how can he be getting himself better on a day-in, day-out basis. Getting himself better on the field, better in the weight room, and then mentally in the film room and going through walk-throughs.
"When you have somebody like that, who knows they haven’t already arrived and who is going to work to always improve and who isn’t going to think, ‘OK, I’ve got it now. I’ve made it.’ When you have one of those kids like that, he’s going to keep striving to be the best he can be every day. … I have no doubt that kid will be a star.”
Shanahan and Lynch are banking on it. Maybe not come September, but that when the time is right, Lance will be unleashed and the 49ers can bend the NFL to their will for the next decade.
That the 49ers’ search finally will be over. That passing on Aaron Rodgers and saying no to Tom Brady finally will be relegated to footnote status in a storied franchise's long history.
Lance’s arrival has brought an electricity to the Bay, an anticipation of the greatness he and Shanahan will author under the Santa Clara sky.
Doubts and questions will remain, and the what-ifs bandied about until Lance delivers a signature play that signals his NFL arrival and the impending doom the rest of the league faces -- just as he did on that October 2018 afternoon when Klieman told his staff they'd found something special.
“It’s a unique position that is so rare to find that special of talent,” Klieman said. "He believed his time was now, and I’m proud of him because that was not easy to do as a third-year guy to jump out from FCS [and go to the NFL].
“But, man, he’ll prove people wrong. He’ll be great.”