FARGO, N.D. — Randy Hedberg smiled when he was recently asked about his communication with the 49ers before last month's NFL draft.
"I'll tell you a funny story about that," said North Dakota State's associate head coach.
The story: On April 24, five days before the San Francisco 49ers selected NDSU quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall pick, Hedberg was having dinner in downtown Fargo when he received a call from a number he didn't recognize. After conferring with his wife, Chery, he felt confident it came from his daughter's fiancé in Santa Cruz. He called back.
"Kasper!" Hedberg said.
"No, coach," came the response, "this is coach Shanahan from the 49ers."
After that awkward opening, Hedberg and Kyle Shanahan were on the same page. And that's because they speak the same language.
Hedberg's latest star pupil, Lance, might be far more NFL-ready than it would appear after glancing at his age, experience and college competition. Unlike so many college quarterbacks leading spread attacks, Lance directed NDSU's pro-style offense, which mirrored much of what he'll be asked to do with the 49ers. Lance's ability to lead the Bison's system allayed some of Shanahan's fears before he invested the No. 3 pick on a QB who made 17 starts at the Football Championship Subdivision level and was 20 when he was drafted.
Hedberg, 66, a former NFL quarterback, is the passing-game coordinator and QBs coach at a program that's won eight of the past 10 FCS national titles. He's been in Fargo since 2014 and is a reason the Missouri Valley Football Conference school has an unlikely title: Quarterback U. Before Lance, the Bison's starters were the Colts' Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in 2016, and the Chargers' Easton Stick, a 2019 fifth-round NFL pick.
Two top-three NFL draft picks at the position in the past five years? Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and UCLA have combined to produce zero since 1995. How is this happening?
"It's the style of offense that we run," Hedberg said. "I think that's the key part: I think we have a style of offense that highlights quarterback play and also prepares them for the next level, if they have that ability."
Said Stick: "I think we're all fortunate. Carson would say the same thing: I just think the offense there is as close to a pro-style offense that you can play in in college."
Hedberg says the offense has been a "selling point" for NFL evaluators because, based on video study, they see evidence Wentz, Stick and Lance have a mind to match their talent. Lance had a 3.9 GPA in high school and was on the dean's list at NDSU, Wentz graduated college with a 4.0 GPA and Stick graduated summa cum laude (3.92 GPA).
NDSU's quarterbacks have pre-snap responsibilities that involve changing calls or alignments based on what they observe from a defense. Lance was required to change the offensive-line protections when, for example, he anticipated an incoming blitz. And he used a "kill" and "maybe" system to switch to a built-in secondary call at the line of scrimmage: A "kill" would change a pass to a run, or vice versa. The "maybe" system involved checking out of the original run call to another run.
In addition, Lance was adept at what Hedberg termed NDSU's "quick game," which required him to make an immediate throw based on the defensive coverage. Hedberg didn't divulge everything Lance had to master. That was clear when he was asked a follow-up after he mentioned NDSU has a "specific way of teaching quarterbacks how to see coverages."
"Yeah, I don't really want to talk about that so much," Hedberg said, smiling. "But if they can learn it and figure it out, I think it helps them."
Lance also had to command a huddle, relay lengthy play calls to teammates and take snaps from under center. Those are basic-sounding responsibilities, but they have become increasingly rare in college football: No-huddle, shotgun-only systems in which QBs run the play they receive via a coach's hand signal or a play card from the sideline are the norm.
"So much of high school and college football now is you read a hand signal from the sideline, telling you, 'Yes, run it, or, no, let's do this,'" said Kansas State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who recruited Lance and was his coordinator during his redshirt season in 2018. "In our system, the QB is making those decisions at the line of scrimmage because they've got the next go-to call already built in. ... So I think that aspect of it does lend to those quarterbacks having a better grasp of the why. Why are we looking to run this against this defense? Why are we looking to get into this play? And I think that will help Trey tremendously at the next level."
Messingham believes Lance will also feel "very comfortable" with what Shanahan will ask him to do after the snap. NDSU has taken concepts from Shanahan's system, which include naked bootlegs and specific ball-handling on play-action passes. Like the 49ers, the Bison emphasize the ground game and make extensive use of a fullback and two tight-end formations.
Lance's experience in a relatively complex offense doesn't guarantee he'll be ready to unseat incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo as a rookie. But those who worked him at NDSU wouldn't be surprised if he's a quick study.
Lance, as a redshirt in 2018, scored on a 44-yard run in his debut, a 38-7 win against North Alabama in which he relieved Stick. The play highlighted Lance's athleticism, but Stick was even more struck by his acumen: Lance, then 18, changed the offensive-line protection, a pre-snap adjustment that that set up the score.
"That was kind of the first big moment," Stick said.
A year later, in his starting debut, Lance, after making a "kill" call, capped the game-opening drive with a 33-yard run in a 57-10 win against Butler.
"You wouldn't expect a second-year freshman to do that," Hedberg said. "But he had the poise and knowledge to get it done."
Still, Hedberg, noting Lance benefited from spending a season backing up Stick, hopes he can do the same behind Garoppolo in 2021. And Stick cautioned that Lance, despite his preparation at Quarterback U, is now making a difficult transition.
"What he was asked to do in college is as close as you're going to get to what he's going to have to do at this level," Stick said. "But the National Football League is a whole different beast. I do know this though: I'm not betting against Trey Lance on anything."