In Search of ‘The Next Carson Wentz’
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The leading candidate to be the next Carson Wentz isn’t quite comfortable in his assumed role.
It’s Saturday night, and Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson just led his team to a 20-14 road upset of Northern Iowa in front of a crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder at the UNI-Dome. Gustafson didn’t play great—14 for 30, 118 yards, scoreless in the second half—but he’s doing all the right things otherwise. He pats an opponents shoulder on the way off the field; he credits the defense in his post-game press conference. Now, he’s leaning his 6'7" frame against a cement hallway wall during an interview.
When I say his footwork looked far improved from a handful of plays I had seen on film, Gustafson turns to self-deprecation: “I mean, look at me,” he says, pointing to his size-15 feet. “I’m kind of a goofy guy, I’m kind of awkward. So yeah, I needed to work on my footwork, and I guess it’s getting there.”
On the Wentz comparisons, he is downright bashful: “It’s very humbling. I mean, I played against the dude, I talked to him a couple times, mostly in passing, but he’s just a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal story. And O.K., I just want to reiterate: It’s very humbling.”
As for off-field interests? “I’m an O.K. golfer,” he says. “Just to give you a little bit of an idea, the best round ever I shot was a 76. And O.K., I don’t want to be that guy… but I did hit a hole-in-one before. Again, I’m not trying to be that guy. I’m really sorry.”
Over the next seven months, Gustafson is going to need to keep working on that footwork, and stop apologizing for his ascension: At the moment, he’s an intriguing, if not special, NFL prospect.
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The leaders of the 2017 quarterback draft class are becoming defined. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, the dual-threat playmaker, headlined the summer. Big-armed Brad Kaaya of Miami is considered the most ready to plug into an NFL system. And Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer catapulted onto the scene after a dazzling first two weeks of the college season.
But ever since the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select Wentz, of FCS North Dakota State, with the number two pick of last April’s draft, the question has remained: Could another top prospect be hiding at a small school? This was only amplified after Wentz’s solid Week 1 performance.
Perhaps that’s why so many NFL teams are considering Montana’s Gustafson, a fifth-year senior. One NFL scout called him the best quarterback in the West. Another scout had major hesitations, citing Gustafson’s uneven footwork and inconsistency. If you’re wondering how NFL teams unearth a player like this, consider: One scout discovered Gustafson during the last draft cycle—while evaluating Wentz. The scout wanted to watch the one game North Dakota State lost last season. In doing so, he was captivated by the opposing quarterback: Gustafson.
The Billings, Mont., native looks the part. His tall frame is filled out by a thick, muscular body. One evaluator said Gustafson is like Sean Mannion, but with a stronger arm. Gustafson’s arm is impressive; during warmups I watched him throw tight, beautiful spiral after tight, beautiful spiral. In the game, the ball zipped out of his hand. And the parallels to Wentz are eerie. They’re both high honors students. They both played for FCS schools a bit off the beaten college football track. Gustafson—like Wentz—missed time with a significant injury his junior season. (For Gustafson, it was six weeks with a broken leg.) Last season was his first year as a starter, and Gustafson could enter the NFL with fewer than 20 career starts at the collegiate level.
Gustafson is a sub-60 percent passer (57.5 percent this year, 57.2 career), but he has been victimized by a lot of drops. The game I saw felt like a microcosm of his inconsistencies: He flashed on a couple beautiful plays, including a pump fake and gorgeous 30-yard touch pass (his wideout bobbled the ball) and a deep out from the far hash for an 11-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter. He also had a hard time drawing the safety away with his eyes (“this is the last part of his game that needs perfecting,” says Grizzlies coach Bob Stitt) and had a few flat-footed throws, as well as one where he short-armed a ball that one-hopped a wide-open receiver.
All of those aspects of his game can be developed. Raw talent cannot.
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Gustafson began playing flag football when he was eight. He was six inches taller than any other teammate, so he began on the offensive line. He was a prep standout for Billings West High as a quarterback, but he had only one scholarship offer: Montana. This is the first red flag for NFL teams. If they are going to take a chance on an unseasoned product, they at least want to have the assurance of pedigree. (Think Jets 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg, who had a rocky career at Penn State but was a five-star recruit in high school.)
Gustafson rarely played during his first three seasons at Montana. Then Stitt took over in 2015. The longtime coach at Colorado School of Mines is a star among connoisseurs of offense (his brush with relative fame came after designing a shotgun fly-sweep play used by West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen in the Mountaineers’ blowout of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl). Stitt had retained three coaches from the previous staff, which was trying to push Gustafson out of the program. “The O-line was in such terrible shape, they had a quarterback who was a runaround guy, they needed someone who could scramble around.” Two days into the job, Stitt got a visit from Gustafson in his office. “I just want to let you know, coach,” he said, “I’m not going anywhere.” A day later, in the first quarterbacks meeting, Stitt agreed. “Brady just got it,” the coach says. “He was the only one who could pick up what we were doing.” Gustafson beat out six other quarterbacks to win the job going into 2015. He won the job again in 2016, beating out Kentucky transfer Reese Phillips.
Stitt’s offense asks a lot of the quarterback; on one run play, for example, Gustafson has 14 checks he can go to. It’s a hurry-up offense. Gustafson often goes to the sideline for the play call—meaning he has pre-determined reads—but he called several audibles in the Northern Iowa game.
Stitt vouches for his quarterback.
Coachable? “I can give him the worst call in the world and he’ll say, ‘I love it, I love it, let’s try it.’”
Tough? “Our O-line struggled. He took shots last year in our first couple games, and he was hurting. There was one shot in the midsection at NDSU. But he never said a word. I said, ‘Brady, you O.K.?’ Yeah coach, I’m fine.’… Even when he came back, the last few games, he wasn’t feeling great. He kind of told me after the fact. His leg still didn’t feel good, but he played anyway.” (After Gustafson returned to the lineup, Montana scored 57 and 54 points, respectively, in the final two games of the regular season.)
Able to handle pressure? “All summer he heard, ‘Next Carson Wentz, next Carson Wentz, and in our first game he tried to be perfect—he tried to be Carson Wentz. But he was able to adjust at halftime, and then he was Brady Gustafson, and he had a heck of a game.”
His potential is exciting. But at the same point in their respective careers, Wentz was far more polished. Gustafson has the tools, but because of his inconsistent mechanics, he’s considered a project. And teams are increasingly impatient with quarterbacks taken toward the top of the draft.
So is Brady Gustafson the next Carson Wentz? Probably not. But because of Wentz, a prospect like Gustafson is going to get a long look.
• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run.
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford hyping fellow edge rusher and Auburn ex-teammate Carl Lawson.
“Carl is very strong, very productive, and very, very technically sound. He came in as a freshman and was ready to play right away. He had only a few things he needed to learn, but the talent was there. Of course, he had a few vets above him, like me, but he was always a force. I’ll never forget his first sack, his freshman year against Ole Miss, it was beautiful. He’s been hurt just about every season, and he might have even played through some things. But I feel like this is the year. If he’s fully healthy, the sky is the limit for him. I’ve been in this league a few years now and I know what type of players can be impact players. Carl is that guy. I love him to death. That guy, he has a chance to be really special. He might even be better than me.”
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State: Big play threat anytime he gets the ball. Lethal when he gets space. He’s a three-down starter.
Vince Biegel, OLB, Wisconsin: He has a chance to be an elite 3-4 edge rusher. Has a nice low dip move. Needs to slow his motor down sometimes, should have had a couple sacks on [LSU quarterback] Brandon Harris in Week 1 but missed.
Jessamen Dunker, G, Tennessee State: Originally played for Florida, had been suspended for off-field issues and transferred. He’s really athletic. He’s a great pulling guard. Strong anchors in pass protection. He has all the tools, and if he was still at Florida he’d be one of the top guards in the country.
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What I’m watching this week
All times Eastern…
No. 12 Michigan State at No. 18 Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m): Don’t look now, but Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer could be supplanting Deshaun Watson as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in this year’s class (remember, Kizer is just a redshirt sophomore; Watson is a junior). Kizer has prototypical pocket-passer size and arm strength, but can also move; he has 12 rushing touchdowns in 15 career games. The Spartans, coming off a bye, had time to prepare. And you know Mark Dantonio always has his defense ready.
No. 2 Florida State at No. 10 Louisville (Saturday, noon): All aboard the Lamar Jackson hype train. I’m in one of the first cars. The Cardinals’ quarterback is the new Heisman frontrunner, accounting for 888 total yards and 13 total touchdowns in his first two games—and he sat the second half of the season-opener. Against the Seminoles, Jackson can prove that he’s legit and that the Cardinals are playoff contenders. Biggest game in Louisville football history?
No. 22 Oregon at Nebraska (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.): In a weekend full of splashy matchups, this could be a sneaky good one. Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley knows the Ducks well; he spent 14 seasons as coach of their rival, Oregon State. The Ducks are averaging 48.5 points per game—beating up on struggling Virginia last week—but I think they’re vulnerable. Looking forward to seeing how they transition into Brady Hoke’s defense for their first big test of the year.
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
For the first time since 1996, Air Force, Army and Navy have all started the season 2-0. Navy and Army have each overcome in-game challenges. In Week 1 Navy pulled an emergency quarterback from the stands after their starter went down. And in Week 2, the start of the second quarter of the Army-Rice game was delayed several minutes after one of Army’s mules pooped in the end zone. All eyes on you, Air Force, in your Week 3 game against Utah State.
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior matchups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Colorado CB Chidobe Awuzie vs. Michigan WR Amara Darboh (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.): Awuzie is a three-and-a-half year starter, capable of playing outside or in the slot. He’s creating buzz among NFL scouts with his combination of size, speed and instincts. Darboh overcame the death of his parents in war-torn Sierra Leone before being taken in by a family in Des Moines, Iowa, and being introduced to football in high school. In three seasons as a starter for the Wolverines, he has accumulated 102 receptions for 1,353 yards and 10 touchdowns. Awuzie will be challenged by the size and strength of Darboh, and the speed of another senior wide receiver, Jehu Chesson.
Best of the rest...
South Carolina State OT Javarius Leamon (No. 52) vs. Clemson DT Carlos Watkins (No. 94)
San Diego State CB Damontae Kazee (No. 23) vs. Northern Illinois WR Kenny Golladay (No. 19)
Florida State CB Marquez White (No. 27) vs. Louisville WR Jamari Staples (No. 2)
Alabama FS Eddie Jackson (No. 4) vs. Ole Miss TE Evan (No. 17)
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Beginning my four-plus hour drive to Northern Iowa last week, I immediately thought one thing: I can stop by the Kurt Warner Hy-Vee. We at The MMQB love the Kurt Warner Hy-Vee. We visited last winter as part of our Super Bowl 50 tour. There’s probably no need for a refresher, as this is the equivalent of reminding everyone that Antonio Gates once played basketball, but whatever: Hy-Vee is where Warner bagged groceries for $5.50 an hour before he got his NFL shot. When we came in February, the managers bragged about their in-store restaurant. Skeptical about sit-down dining 50 yards from the dairy aisle, we told them if we had more time, we’d stop. Seeing as I had a few hours on Saturday afternoon, I did stop. And it was quite impressive. Besides the nine local beers on tap (hear that, Peter King?) they had a full menu ranging from sushi to a buffalo chicken sandwich with the ratio of bun (normal size) to buffalo chicken approximately 1:7. Hello, Midwest portions! As I watched my Nittany Lions stumble through the first half against Pitt, I had a chicken Caesar salad and some of their homemade bread, which was pillowy and coated in honey and unlike anything I have ever tasted. In February I had texted a photo of the Hy-Vee to Warner, pointing out that his old stomping grounds now featured a Starbucks. His response was perfect: “I guess we’re all moving up in the world.”
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