Could Montana's Brady Gustafson Be the Next Carson Wentz?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 17, 2016

Montana's quarterback Brady Gustafson (3) passes the ball as North Dakota State's Tre Dempsey (3) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Missoula, Mont.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Stop me if you've heard this before: A previously overlooked FCS quarterback with prototypical size and top-notch arm talent has the potential to be a top pick in next year's NFL draft. 

A year ago, this discussion centered on North Dakota State's Carson Wentz. The same conversation will occur this year with the Montana Grizzlies' Brady Gustafson. 

There are similarities, but these two quarterbacks aren't one and the same. It's important to understand this, because they'll inevitably be linked throughout the next draft cycle. 

The Philadelphia Eagles traded a massive amount of picks and players to acquire the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft and select Wentz, so placing the same level of expectations upon Gustafson is simply unfair. 

Gustafson is a physically talented prospect with traits NFL scouts look for at every level. He's 6'7" and 230-plus pounds with an effortless throwing motion. He's a pocket passer by trade, but he's also athletic enough to maneuver around the pocket. These types of tools automatically get quarterbacks noticed. 

"He's a very smart guy," Montana head coach and offensive play-caller Bob Stitt said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "He’s got the physical tools, and he's quicker and faster than people realize. He can also run a little bit and cover some ground. He puts his foot in the ground and moves around the pocket well. He can make all of the throws, too."

These physical tools must be balanced between the young man's obvious upside and his overall lack of experience. 

Much like Wentz, collegiate programs overlooked Gustafson during the recruiting process. The Billings, Montana, native wasn't heavily pursued before signing with the University of Montana. During his first three years in the program, Gustafson remained buried on the depth chart. Everything changed when Stitt arrived. 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

"When I first got the job and the staff met with the quarterbacks to explain how we were going to do things and offensive concepts, I knew before he ever took a snap that Brady would be our guy," the coach said. "It just clicked for him mentally. I believe that’s his strongest suit: how fast he processes information."

Gustafson's primary obstacle throughout the scouting process will stem from his limited opportunities. 

As a junior, Wentz started all 16 games and led the Bison to the program's fourth straight national championship. In his first year as a starter, the North Dakota native rewrote the program's record book by setting new single-season records in pass attempts, completions and yards. He also broke the school's total-offense-per-game mark.

Concerns eventually arose when Wentz suffered a broken wrist in 2015. Thus, he only started 23 career games. The entire scouting process slowed due to the injury. As a result, Wentz's status as a top prospect seemed to come out of nowhere even though he entered last season as a highly intriguing and well-known prospect among scouts. 

Gustafson's injury came a year earlier in the development process, and he didn't experience as much success as Wentz during his junior campaign. The lanky signal-caller suffered a broken leg in last season's September 19 game against the Liberty Flames, which stunted his learning curve, but not to the extent some might believe. 

"It didn’t help his statistics, but he continued to prepare every week," Stitt said. "He saw things from the sidelines the other quarterbacks who were actually playing didn’t. When he did come back against Eastern Washington, we scored 51 points by the third quarter, so I took him out of the game. We could have scored 80 points if we left our starters in that day.

"He continued to grow mentally throughout the season, but he didn’t get as many reps or statistics as some might have liked. We did score 57 and 54 in the last two weeks with him."

During Gustafson's last two regular-season starts against the Eastern Washington Eagles and Montana State Bobcats, he completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 619 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He finished the season with a 57.6 completion percentage, 1,984 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. 

With that in mind, Gustafson could start every game as a senior and still have less than 20 career starts if the Grizzlies don't qualify for the playoffs. Of course, the team made the postseason last year and should have raised expectations, particularly with the talented senior signal-caller. 

Ironically, the Montana quarterback's best game came against North Dakota State.

In last year's season opener on national television, Gustafson made his first start. He rose to the occasion against the reigning national champions with 434 passing yards, three touchdowns and a game-winning drive in the final minute. Montana defeated North Dakota State, 38-35. 

"We didn't know much about Brady at all," Bison defensive coordinator Matt Entz said. "We just saw his size. I remember going into that first game, and we were just trying to watch him during pregame. Was he a threat to run? How mobile was he in the pocket? How strong of an arm did he have? All of those question marks were there.

"Unfortunately, we learned the hard way he’s a talented quarterback. I think he fits really well in what they do, and he’s been really well-coached. He understands the offense. Just from following them, they struggled when he wasn't behind center. He must make the offense go and be cerebral enough to understand the tempo and play-calling."

One pass stood out during the final drive. On 4th-and-10 from the 44-yard line with 27 seconds remaining and down by four points, Gustafson delivered a big-time throw scouts and coaches will consistently refer to when evaluating him. 

Montana lined up in a trips-left set against North Dakota State's Cover 2: 

Montana's pre-snap look on fourth down
Montana's pre-snap look on fourth downCredit: DraftBreakdown.com

The nickel corner carried the No. 3 receiver to the linebacker, and a (off-screen) safety loomed over the top: 

Gustafson's post-snap read on fourth down
Gustafson's post-snap read on fourth downCredit: DraftBreakdown.com

Gustafson showed tremendous anticipation when he released the pass well before his target cleared the nickel corner and the linebacker: 

Gustafson's anticipation on the fourth-down throw
Gustafson's anticipation on the fourth-down throwCredit: DraftBreakdown.com

The quarterback threw a perfectly timed, impeccably placed pass to keep his team alive in the most critical of situations: 

Gustafson's ball placement over linebacker and underneath safety
Gustafson's ball placement over linebacker and underneath safetyCredit: DraftBreakdown.com

Inconsistency plagues the quarterback's game, though. As noted earlier, Gustafson completed less than 60 percent of his passes. For comparison, Wentz completed 63.7 percent of his passes as a junior. 

Stitt implemented a completely new system upon his arrival, which led to some of the issues. 

"Early in the season, particularly the first couple of games, he wasn’t on the same page with the receivers," the coach explained. "The receivers missed signals and sometimes hung him out to dry. He'd throw a different route than what they ran. He’ll continue to work on his footwork. But right now, he’s much more comfortable.

"We actually watched the last drive of the first North Dakota State game at this year’s youth camp. I talked to Brady after the fact, and he said it drives him crazy to watch that film because he looked at the throws he missed."

Earlier in the same game, a perfect example of the quarterback's inconsistency exists. On a big stage in a crucial moment, Gustafson eventually delivered. Yet he missed a similar throw down the opposite seam during another fourth-down situation: 

Montana met North Dakota State a second time last season. The team's victory during Week 1 certainly thrilled college football fans, but the team and Gustafson didn't deliver in the playoffs. The quarterback completed only 50 percent of his passes with a touchdown and four interceptions. The Bison won, 37-6, on their way to another national championship. 

Entz adjusted his scheme after he got a good initial look at the young signal-caller. 

"We felt going into the second game we could cause Gustafson some problems with pre-snap looks," North Dakota State's defensive coordinator said. "I felt he knew where he wanted to go with the ball based on split safeties or in a single-high defense. We tried to disguise as much as we could. In the playoff game, we tried to show middle of the field closed or open with a split-safety defense. That’s where we started."

Montana feasted on crossing and underneath routes during the first matchup. This became a primary concern for Entz's unit. 

"We needed to do some things in our coverage structure to account for those underneath routes and be a little more disruptive," he said, "whether we clouded to a side and rolled over the coverage to have a fast flat defender in the area to cover those crossing routes instead of chasing from the other side.

"We just changed up some of the coverages we already had in place to fit what they wanted to do, particularly when they were three-by-one or two-by-two in their formations. When it was three-by-one and the quarterback felt the boundary safety was leaning one direction or the other, you could almost guarantee where he was going with the ball.

"That’s why showing some pre-snap rotations with the backers and safeties allowed us to get a couple of those interceptions."

The Bison defense successfully confused Gustafson after his strong finish to the regular season and first playoff contest against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. 

This is one of the key differences between Gustafson and Wentz. During the draft process, teams found out how cerebral and advanced Wentz really was despite coming out of an FCS program. 

"I saw Carson torch me and the defense for two years during seven-on-sevens," Entz said. "All of the things we did to Brady in the second game with the different looks and disguises, we threw at Carson and he still figured us out. Of course, he played against us every day in practice and knew some of our tendencies."

While a few concerns lingered about Wentz's game, he clearly displayed the physical and mental tools needed to become a high draft pick. 

For Gustafson, it could be only a matter of time before he's viewed in the same fashion. When watching him closely, there are inconsistencies regarding his ball placement and footwork. Like many tall quarterbacks, he needs to speed up the process from the ground up when working through his progression and delivering the football. 

But NFL organizations will likely find he's more advanced than expected. 

"He's going to be a guy the offensive coordinators and head coaches will love, because he will come in with the ability to run the offense quickly," Stitt said. "If he’s in the game, he’s going to understand and execute your offense. There are a lot of talented quarterbacks, but it’s the guys who can handle the mental side of it that are successful."

When breaking down Montana's offense, Entz noticed how much responsibility the Grizzlies placed on their quarterback. Stitt asked Gustafson to make protection calls, change route concepts and orchestrate the offense while operating at a fast tempo. 

"I give him a starting point, and he can go with it," Stitt said. "Depending on what the defense is doing, he can change things. If the quarterback is making good decisions, the defense won’t be right."

Usually, signal-callers who operate within the constraints of a program's scheme tend to be referred to as game managers or system quarterbacks. This isn't Gustafson. His playmaking ability extends beyond what's being called. 

The 6'7" gunslinger isn't afraid to pull the trigger on 50-50 balls or throw into tight windows. He will take chances and displays the arm strength to complete difficult downfield passes. 

"We really want our quarterbacks to be that way," Stitt said. "When they know that's where the ball needs to go, they have to let it rip. We know they'll throw interceptions at some point, but we've got to get the ball out on time instead of waiting until the receiver is open. We’re not going to scream at them if they throw an interception. We want that ball delivered quickly, though, and Brady has the arm to squeeze it in there."

According to the coach, the young man also reshaped his body and got much stronger after dedicating himself to the Grizzlies' new weight-training program. 

Gustafson is a legitimate NFL prospect worth watching. He's raw, but the tools, attitude and approach are present to develop into an early-round possibility after a strong senior campaign. Wentz, however, developed into something special, and Gustafson shouldn't be saddled with the same expectations despite similar circumstances. 

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

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