North Dakota State Offensive Coordinator Explains Carson Wentz's Draft Ascension

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North Dakota State Offensive Coordinator Explains Carson Wentz's Draft Ascension
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The Carson Wentz hype train picks up steam with each passing day, and he appears destined to be the first quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL draft. 

Is the FCS standout worth the hype, though? 

The North Dakota State product fits prototypical standards for an NFL quarterback. He stands 6'5", weighs 237 pounds, owns 10-inch hands and can make every throw with ease. He's also a good athlete and ran a 4.77-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

In fact, the quarterback finished among the top five performers at his position in the 40-yard dash, broad jump and three-cone drill. 

Physically, Wentz is the total package. 

Concerns arise about his level of competition and how advanced he is as a passer at this point in his career. Wentz only started two seasons and played in a run-dominant scheme. 

As such, the 23-year-old signal-caller is generally considered a developmental passer with tremendous upside who may need time before he can take over an NFL offense. 

When talking about this year's quarterback class, an anonymous NFL scout told Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, "There is talent there, but it's marginal. They've all been inflated by the fact they know how to work out at the combine, but the tape isn't really all that impressive to me."

To better understand exactly who Wentz is as a person and NFL draft prospect, Bleacher Report reached out to North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tim Polasek to provide an inside view. 

Polasek served as an assistant coach when the Bison staff recruited the quarterback and served through Wentz's first two seasons in Fargo, North Dakota. The coach left during Wentz's third year to become a part of Rod Carey's staff at Northern Illinois before returning to the Bison as the program's offensive coordinator. 

As such, Polasek served as Wentz's primary play-caller during the quarterback's two seasons as a starter. In that time, the Bismarck, North Dakota, native completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 4,762 yards, 42 touchdowns and 14 interceptions on his way to a pair of national titles—which serve as the latter part of five straight national championships for the Bison.  

The offensive coordinator described what Wentz was asked to do in his system, the type of person he is and where he fits among all of these crazy NFL quarterback comparisons being mentioned in recent weeks. 

 

Bleacher Report: Let’s start from the beginning. We’ve heard the stories of Wentz getting injured during his junior campaign in high school and really coming on during his senior season. What did the North Dakota State staff see in him, and how did he grow from that point until today?

Tim Polasek: I’d be somewhat pulling your leg if we really knew.

At North Dakota State, we’re going to recruit anybody who can help us win a national championship. If they’re a good enough athlete, we kind of find a spot for them as we go.

As a quarterback, Carson clearly had a place. More than that, his size, character and athletic ability were enough for us to go off of at the time.

We love football in North Dakota, and the high school coaches do a great job, but it’s just not the cream of the crop in regard to prospects or the number of recruits.

If you look back on it, it wasn’t a case where he was sitting there and lighting it up and the rest of the country missed on him. There was a lot of developmental that occurred.

From the time he got on campus, what I remember is a special energy, spunk and a willingness to learn. He was always out there competing. I know this gets thrown around an awful lot now, but as a program, I believe we compete daily as good as anyone. He definitely fit that mold, which was the most exciting thing.

I then got feedback from his previous quarterback coach—Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen—and he told me: "He catches on quickly, gets it conceptually and can handle this stuff. Guys, we might not necessarily have a quarterback controversy, but it’s a competition."

Moving forward, we won another national title with a scrapper and winning guy in Brock Jensen. How could we sit him down?

The truth is Carson did enough things from an ooh-and-ah perspective to talk about a competition. It just became evident how talented he was, but our hands were tied. We were really happy with Brock as a player. He had the football team and continued to lead it. So, we decided not to make the move.

What says more than anything about getting to the point where we are now, Carson prepared like he was the guy every day for three years. When his chance to start finally came, he was more than ready to go.

That says a lot, especially in today’s culture and society.

For him to dig in when he wasn’t starting, he was still considered one of our leaderswhich is really difficult to do when you play quarterback and you’re not the guy.

 

B/R: At the NFL combine in Indianapolis, North Dakota State left tackle Joe Haeg told reporters, "If you would have asked me two-three years ago, I would have said he'd be a first-round pick."

His comment can obviously be traced back to before Wentz was named the starter. What you’re saying is the coaching staff felt the same way, but you couldn’t validate sitting Jensen at that point.

TP: Exactly right. One hundred percent right. It’s because Brock Jensen was a great quarterback, especially at our level.

MIKE STONE/Associated Press
Quarterback Carson Wentz celebrates a touchdown in the FCS National Championship Game with left tackle Joe Haeg.

There are great college quarterbacks, and there’s the level of stuff we’re dealing with now. There’s a difference between being a great prospect and a great college player. These two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. We were in a really good situation at the time.

To be honest, we didn’t have any worries about the other quarterback getting dinged when we had Carson as the backup. You felt good about playing him if needed.

 

B/R: You were on the Bison staff when Jensen started, but you also spent a season on Northern Illinois' staff when the Huskies had some guy named Jordan Lynch—a Heisman Trophy finalist. Both were fantastic college players. Both got a sniff of the NFL with tryouts and are currently playing in the CFL.

Being around those types of athletes and considering how good they were at the collegiate level, how did Wentz separate himself from being a great collegian into becoming a great prospect?

TP: It’s pretty simple: The ability to transfer information from a coach to the huddle and diagnose the situation at the line of scrimmage to get the team in the best possible situation over and over again is No. 1.

No. 2 would be the ability to get his feet in the throwing game as need be. Very seldom was he behind the last two years. It showed up on tape that he sometimes had to wait for a play to develop, while he was already playing at Mach 1 speed. That’s probably the biggest difference.

In the throwing game, he knows what’s going to happen 90 percent of the time pre-snap. He understands the pieces of the defense better than those two kids would have.

It’s a little unfair to comment on Jordan, because of the system. There were things built in based on how the defense reacts. It’s more about one-man reads when distributing the ball.

With Carson and his ability to read full-field concepts—again, our system allowed him to get out of bad situations or back to the line of scrimmage—he’s just been able to handle that stuff better than anyone I’ve been around.

It’s not simple stuff.

The one comment I’ve continually made about him since coming back for fall camp as a coordinator: There are guys who are really good and can handle and understand the system. On the other hand—and this is why I believe we’re talking about Carson as the potential No. 2 overall pick—he took advantage of the system and made it his own.

 

B/R: At North Dakota State, it’s considered a pro-style system. Could you elaborate on the roots of the offense, how Wentz is supposed to react in certain situations and the nuts and bolts of what the quarterback is being asked to do on a down-by-down basis?

TP: We don’t see it as being difficult. We want people to understand this is doable. It’s a matter of getting the process in place.

The nuts and bolts are found within multiple combo-run-game calls. There are two calls within one. We’re looking at a certain technique or safety roll.

On top of that, we always have our base rules in the run game that need to be carried into every contest, whether they’re in the call or not when certain looks take us somewhere into one or two other calls that have to be audibled based on what the quarterback understands as the trouble fronts.

That’s where we start.

As simple as that sounds, it’s important. When you’re a team that is so committed to physically winning football games with good defense and running the ball, it’s imperative that the number of bad calls is minimized. Again, Carson did it better than anyone I’ve been around.

In our quick and base dropback pass games, those things are coupled with runs. We were able to say, "OK, Carson. In a Tampa 2 look on certain downs and distances, we’re going to be more apt to call a pass-to-run or run-to-pass based on the box count. Or blitz versus non-blitz."

These are big pieces that go into install on day two or three, whether it’s spring ball or fall camp.

The third element is protection. Our center and O-line communicate, but they’re not identifying the "Mike" (linebacker) or which way the protection will slide. They’re not identifying the pressure for all 11 guys. That’s our quarterback’s job.

Carson had full rein to get us in a seven-man or five-man protection call or even an empty situation—which we did far more during the last two years. He did a great job of getting us from 60 pro to five-man when he didn’t need a sixth man.

Out of the 250-plus dropbacks over the last two years—which isn’t a ton, but I’m talking true dropbacks: five steps with a hitch or seven-step tempo—he missed turning the protection to the correct side on only a handful of occasions.

If and when he made mistakes, he knew he made the mistake and had to deal the ball quickly. Very rarely did those few-and-far-between mistakes actually turn into tackles for loss, sacks or bad decisions that resulted in interceptions.

He was always mindful of making a play with his feet or taking care of the football, which we emphasize greatly.

The fourth part of our process boils down to five, six or seven things that we like, understand and can basically run against just about anything. He relied on those things he repped. He was told to get the offense into those plays during certain situations.

For example, I have a job to do, and it’s to make the best play call I can possibly make based on tendencies and numbers. But I would look at Carson and tell him if he liked a concept to get us into it. This is what I want and what you like. Let’s play with confidence and get everyone set. He had full rein in situations like that. Just like he had full rein in situations like 2nd-and-short or 1st-and-10.

Maybe I handcuffed him a little bit on 3rd-and-short and told him to stay with plays, but I kept building upon this system. There were plenty of weeks where I told Carson, “They’re 50-50 with Cover 2 High. The rest is pressure. I’m going to carry four plays that are Cover 2 beaters. There a few pressure beaters, and this is one you’ve done well. Go ahead and call it.”

That way, we maximized our reps for situations in practice.

Carson was simply unbelievable as far as the work, grind and putting together plans much like a coach would.

When the staff prepared for red-zone offense, he was in there doing it, too, or texting us ideas. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t listen. First, he’s a really great quarterback, and you need to call what he likes. And they were great thoughts. He saw it the same way we saw it.

On our third-down list, he ranked out our calls.

Too often coordinators seem afraid to give their quarterbacks responsibility or use their input. There’s a fine line with all of this, but Carson did have some ownership in some of the things we carried.

 

B/R: We started these last two points by comparing Wentz to Jensen and Lynch. Let’s go to the opposite side of the spectrum. What were your thoughts when comparisons between him and Andrew Luck surfaced?

TP: We try not to get into comparisons, but it’s hard at this time of year. He’s just trying to be the best Carson Wentz he can be.

I told NFL scouts and extended members within our NDSU community: "It’s unfortunate, but we’ll never get to see his best ball. The guys who end up playing with him and the city in which he plays will see the best of Carson Wentz."

I don’t think for one second that his best ball is behind him.

For me, the Andrew Luck comparison is fair from size, athleticism and, hopefully, intelligence perspectives.

His leadership really floored me. Carson is an assertive leader. His best work actually came when no one was looking.

We’ll see. He does have the ability to get an offense into the best possible play. He does have the ability to get his receivers into the best positional situation. I think he’ll take pieces of multiple great quarterbacks and do the best he can.

 

B/R: Many seemed to be taken aback by that particular comparison, because Luck is considered the quintessential quarterback prospect. Physically, the two do stack up, but the concerns about Wentz’s game stem from only 23 career starts and 612 pass attempts.

Where would you place him along the learning curve coming out of an FCS program and being ready for the NFL?

TP: I believe wholeheartedly because of the amount of verbiage he has had to handle—it’s not sign language, hurry-up or a check-with-me offense—he’s more ready than anyone else.

Regardless of the amount of starts, our system isn’t simply game reps. Players are evaluated that way, but this kid has been doing it for five years.

Take a look at our defensive numbers. These are the guys he faced every day in practice. The San Diego Chargers selected Kyle Emanuel in last year’s draft. Marcus Williams finished in the top five in the NFL last year with six interceptions. He’s facing at least mid-major to lower-level FBS teams in regard to talent on a daily basis.

This is a damn good program. You can’t take that away from the kid. We practice very efficiently, and it’s competitive. Let’s not undermine those reps.

From a coach’s standpoint, I value those things. All I can tell you is I’ve seen throws against a Mike backer [Nick DeLuca], who will be in the NFL next year, running the Tampa 2 that some quarterbacks couldn’t even fathom to attempt due to their systems.

I believe in the guy and what we do.

There’s also a learning curve for Alabama’s quarterbacks. How are those guys doing? The percentage of these guys who work out from wherever they’re from isn’t good.

 

B/R: Instead of level of play, let’s discuss personal traits for the individual player. The three major knocks against Wentz are very simple: He’s slow through his progression, struggles to get off his first read and stares down targets.

How accurate are those?

TP: My initial thought is those making such claims aren't seeing it properly or accurately.

Over and over again, I’ve seen him win his one-on-one with the free safety. I’ve seen him win his one-on-one with a Tampa 2 Mike backer. We’ve sat down with coaches from Stanford, San Diego State, Boston College and Vanderbilt, and we watched all of our tape. The response I received from those college coaches, who have seen a lot of football, made me feel warm and fuzzy.

My question for everyone else would be, "Who is running true West Coast full-field concepts?"

A year ago, we had nine or 10 completions in the Y-Shallow-Cross to the tight end which were at least his third read in the progression.

Brock Jensen, as good as he was, had an inability to get there. This kid doesn’t.

Sometimes in the system, depending on the play call, there are completions on film where it’s a half-field read. Sure, you look at those, because it’s easy to take the checkdown.

Vice versa, it can be a full-field read, and he’s quickly getting back to the third read based on a pre-snap look. Is that staring down or understanding where the defense will be pre-snap and going to the right target post-snap? It happens real fast.

I don’t have all of the answers. This is the first time I’ve been around a first-rounder. Although, we believe there is a learning curve for everyone.

When we were at Stanford, all I can tell you is our dropback pass numbers were 45 to 55 more than some of those teams. Our quick game consisted of 58 more reps.

I struggle with these things, but we’re biased because he’s never let us down.

In the national title game, for example, he made a bad throw, but there were a handful of throws that showed me another guy after not practicing for nine weeks.

 

B/R: Wentz missed eight games due to last season’s wrist injury, yet some of the throws you asked him to make in the FCS National Championship Game in Frisco, Texas, weren’t easy tosses. He threw speed-outs from the opposite hash and just ripped them. Were you guys prepared for him to make those types of throws, or was the plan initially to limit what you asked of him?

TP: We built the game plan as if he was going to play his tail off. That’s less about talent and just knowing the kid would come through for us.

I’ve coordinated for only two years, so I asked around about Carson’s ability late in games. He orchestrated four late-game wins during his first championship year that were just unbelievable. There just wasn’t any doubt after that point.

In warm-ups, he threw the same speed-out as he did in the game. I looked over at Coach [Chris] Klieman and said, "Coach, it’s going to go pretty good today." 

The one thing I found interesting is I talked to Carson Friday night before the game and asked him, "Is there anything I need to worry about?" He said, "No, coach. But I’m going to be honest with you. My arm is sore."

Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

Honestly, he played in the national title and Senior Bowl without a completely fresh arm. Look at what he still did Saturday at the combine.

I look around, and I get it. But I see the 23 starts as a positive. If I’m a coach considering Carson high in the draft and thinking he doesn’t have many reps under his belt, holy smokes.

 

B/R: You mentioned earlier Wentz is so good and quick at what he’s asked to do, but he still had to wait on his teammates in some instances. Did the talent around him become an issue and does it lend to the previously identified problems?

TP: For example, with certain calls—throws we knew required five steps and a hitch or five hard and needed to get it out—we’d tell him, "Carson, you might need to hang on to that hard now."

The fact he was able to adjust and still be productive is amazing.

Timing within what we consider a West Coast offense learned from all sorts of people, we had to find ways to get the depths to add up based on how fast Carson was going to play.

There are two dozen situations if we had one of those receivers who worked out at the combine, it would have been lights out for our offense.

I think the thing that will be a concern for him will be throwing the outside deep ball or the deep post. He’ll just need to rip it and let his guy go get it. We needed him to be really accurate on downfield throws, because we’re not quite as fast at receiver.

That’s going to be fun to watch.

 

B/R: Does this speak to Wentz as a person? In interviews, for example, he mentions the one area he wants to improve upon is his deep-ball accuracy. Instead of blaming those around him, he actually took the blame.

TP: That’s Carson Wentz and 100 percent correct.

He laid it out as a concern before we even gave it to him, "Here are some things you need to work on to become who you want to be."

We give him those weaknesses. Do you know what he does? He stays after workouts in the summer for half an hour working with guys. We ask them to throw maybe two times per week during that period. He has them out there four times.

It takes a man to identify his weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

 

B/R: What did you particularly identify as Wentz’s weaknesses entering this season? And what type of person will an NFL team get in the diligent quarterback?

TP: The main thing he needed to work on was maintaining a good, wide base, whether he was hitching or in his drop. He needed to quiet his feet. We talk about having positive footwork. Don’t have negative feet to put your arm in trouble.

He did a great job of getting his feet, eyes and arm all in time. He was also super-diligent on stepping through toward his target areas. He experienced great strides in each of these areas.

You would be amazed. In the whole time he was hurt, he didn’t miss one day of footwork drills. He went through it the entire time with a cast on his arm. He knew what was coming.

I think he really improved. He went back through his tape, regraded it and broke his game down. He did everything it takes to get these things right.

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We all know how hard it is for a rookie to play in the NFL. The one thing I’m confident in is his character. He will continue to learn from every rep. Good, bad or indifferent, he’ll learn something from that play.

Carson is also super-competitive. He puts so much pressure on himself to be perfect every day. That competitiveness within himself helps prepare him for big moments. That’s why he loves the two-minute drill so much.

How many guys truly embrace that situation? He does. First, he knows he’ll get to call some things on his own. Second, he has superior confidence in himself, which makes his teammates believe they’ll be successful.

As to who he is as a person, he’s going to make a locker room better, because no one will ever have to worry about him making a poor off-the-field decision. I’d be shocked if I read somewhere someday that Carson Wentz makes a poor decision.

Our tackle Joe Haeg talked about Carson doing stuff for him, and he didn’t even have to ask. He’s a super person.

He’s going to be saddled with all kinds of situations and demographics. If he has free time, he’ll be out hunting or fishing with his two dogs. He’ll invite teammates. If they don’t want to go, they don’t have to. If they do, they do.

In the type of program he’s been in, I think it excites people. When he got hurt and had to do his interview, he said, "I’m going to be here for Easton [Stick], and I’ll help him prepare to play better than I did. I want to see him be successful."

That came a day after the news about his injury.

Because of his mentoring, Easton stepped in and finished 8-0 last season. Carson was a part of that. Despite all of Easton's success, his only goal was getting Carson back in green and yellow before the end of the season. This is the type of attitude in our program Carson helped create.

He’s a winner. You want your daughter to marry him.

One final thing: We won the national title two years ago. We went to the coaches' national convention. Afterward, I hit the road to recruit. I called Carson and asked: "Are you over it? I am. Now, we need to start preparing. Here’s what you’re going to do: I want 10 games from last year broken down. I want a better call for every offensive play. I want you to go to the film, freeze the beginning of the play and give me a run or pass that’s a better call than the result we actually had."

He completed the task within 36 hours. He's a 4.0 student as well as a great teammate and friend. He found time to go in there and still get the work done.

Every day in spring ball, we have eight to 10 plays with a formation and the quarterback’s name. We just tell him, "Call it. Call a play. Get us out of trouble. Get us into something you like."

It’s all a learning experience.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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