California quarterback Jared Goff responds to a question during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings
February 26, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) North Dakota State won the NCAA FCS championship in each of Carson Wentz's five seasons on the roster, the last two with him as a starter.

He's a 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback with 10-inch hands, ideal sizes in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Accuracy is one of his strengths, and mobility is not a weakness. He's affable and confident, without any hint of off-the-field trouble. His team ran an offense that translates better to the professional game than the read-option and spread schemes that have proliferated throughout the college game.

Yet there's still skepticism that Wentz, fair or not, will continue to face until he takes his first snap because his competition didn't take place in a power conference. How can teams trust that this prospect is worth such a high draft pick and not too good to be true?

Well, he gave the first answer at the Senior Bowl last month.

''It showed I can handle that game speed. Obviously there's still going to be a big jump going forward, but that was probably the big question everyone wants to know: Can he adjust? He was playing FCS ball. All these guys are FBS guys,'' Wentz said. ''I think I went in there and proved that I could handle it.''

With the draft two months away, Wentz has clearly become its hottest commodity despite his limited experience, including a broken right wrist that kept him out for seven games last season. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called the choice the Cleveland Browns could face with the second overall pick a ''flip of the coin'' between Wentz and California quarterback Jared Goff. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock compared Wentz's ceiling to Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck.

That reference made Wentz blush a bit during his interview with reporters at the annual scouting combine.

''Those guys have already proven themselves. We're all just college kids coming out trying to make a name for ourself,'' Wentz said.

Goff and Wentz, interestingly, have been training together this winter in Irvine, California.

''He's going to be really good wherever he goes,'' Goff said.

Wentz's de facto agent at the combine, former North Dakota State teammate and left tackle Joe Haeg, was predictably just as confident about his close friend's ability to step into the league and become the next Joe Flacco, Tony Romo or Steve McNair, all quarterbacks who made successful leaps from FCS schools to the NFL. Flacco and McNair were first-round draft picks.

''If you would've asked me two or three years ago, I definitely would've said he has the potential to be a first-round pick,'' Haeg said. ''You see what he does off the field, and then you see what he does on the field. There's no question. The guy is so committed to the game. He's just a master of his craft.''

In 2011, when Wentz was a redshirt, Haeg said, ''Carson was the best quarterback our defense faced.'' The schedule that year included a Big Ten foe at Minnesota, which the Bison beat 37-24.

''Whenever we play an FBS team, the first thing that we say when we come out of that first drive is, `These guys aren't as good as you think,''' Haeg said.

North Dakota State had seven former players in the NFL last season, plus Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley. San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke started his coaching career there.

''I know just how much people respect his play on the field, but I think as you get a chance to meet him as a person it'll even climb even higher,'' Bradley said. ''He's just got a good perspective.''

Bradley's Jaguars won't be looking for a quarterback with the No. 5 pick, with Blake Bortles already in the fold, but Baalke's 49ers might be at No. 7.

''He's got the stature you're looking for. He's got the intelligence you're looking for. There are so many positives to draw from,'' Baalke said. ''Now, how ready is he going to be when he gets to the league? I think there will be a learning curve, but there is for everybody at that position.''

So how do the NFL evaluators take into account those game tapes that Wentz produced against FCS teams, when an equally alluring prospect like Goff was putting together his resume against Oregon, Stanford and USC?

''Do they dominate?'' Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said. ''They need to dominate at that level. They can't just be a good player at that level. They have to dominate the competition, and they have to have a swagger about them to be able to come into a locker room of SEC guys and other guys with a chip on their shoulder.''

Wherever Wentz winds up, whether in Cleveland or San Francisco or elsewhere, he'll be in a larger market on a bigger stage with greater responsibilities than he's ever experienced in Bismarck or Fargo.

''Hunting and fishing, wide-open land. I love it out there. It will always be home,'' Wentz said. ''No matter where I go, North Dakota will always be home and I'll always love it.''

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