Perhaps the benchmark for long-term excellence at the quarterback position is the University of Southern California, where the alumni include Heisman Trophy winners and NFL players. If the list was confined to an era or two, the nod would probably go to the University of Miami.
The Hurricanes were given the nickname “Quarterback U” in the 1980s and ‘90s thanks to Heisman winners Gino Toretta and Vinnie Testaverde and college standouts Bernie Kosar and Ken Dorsey.
If the Quarterback U moniker extended to the FCS, two of the best candidates out there are facing each other Saturday afternoon at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. California Davis and North Dakota State: two successful programs at the NCAA Division II level that are making a mark in the FCS, the Bison more than the Aggies.
UC Davis features senior quarterback Jake Maier, the reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He came to Davis in 2017 after one year of junior college football or he may be further threatening the Aggies’ career record book.
It’s a virtual FCS Quarterback U at both schools. Maier said he constantly hears from former Davis quarterbacks. There are plenty out there, like Ken O’Brien, J.T. O’Sullivan, Kevin Daft, Mike Moroski and Scott Barry. All had shots in the NFL, with O’Brien being the poster child by virtue of being a first round draft pick by the New York Jets in 1983.
“They’re at almost every home game, most of them,” Maier said. “They send me messages on social media. It really means a lot to me that the ex-quarterbacks are so willing to guide me on my journey here. It’s a quarterback fraternity here and I’m lucky to be a part of it.”
NDSU’s excellence behind center begins with a run of players in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Jeff Bentrim and Chris Simdorn were Harlon Hill Award winners in 1986 and 1990, an honor that goes to the best player in Division II.
The move to Division I has increased that visibility. Steve Walker guided the Bison to back-to-back 10-1 seasons during the Division I transition. Brock Jensen led NDSU to three straight FCS titles from 2011-13 and left as the all-time wins leader in FCS history.
Carson Wentz took it from there and left the school with two national titles and the No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Easton Stick supplanted Jensen as the FCS wins leader by a quarterback. In the last three weeks, redshirt freshman Trey Lance has showed signs the quarterback train is not about to slow down anytime soon.
“The biggest thing Trey has done is he’s prepared himself well for this situation,” said Randy Hedberg, NDSU’s associate head coach who works with the quarterbacks. “He spent a lot of time last year following Easton around and I think Easton showed him how to prepare. He still has a long way to go, there’s no question about it and Trey would be the first one to tell you that. But I think he’s started well so far.”
His start, 29 of 39 passing with 9 touchdowns and no interceptions, leads the FCS in passing efficiency.
Maier is also coming in hot. He threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns last week in a 41-13 victory over Lehigh (Pa.) and was named the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
It further reinforced his all-time Aggie status. He ranks third in school history with 8,521 yards passing.
Daft has the top two single-game performances with games of 495 and 482 yards respectively. Maier has the next three ahead of O’Sullivan. O’Brien’s career high is the 11th best in school history.
O’Sullivan is the career leader with 10,745. Maier could challenge that with a great season and he will have done it in three years.
“I look at the record books and some of those guys are the best to ever play quarterback, not just at Davis but in the country,” Maier said. “The numbers they put up and the games they were able to win were unbelievable.”
Maier sees the same thing at NDSU, where Wentz is one of the players he looks up to.
“The way he carries himself, a Christian man and the way he leads his team,” Maier said. “And the respect he has. A lot of principles (NDSU) believes in I think line up in what we have at Davis.”
Hedberg said he wouldn’t go as far as to label NDSU a “Quarterback U” school. Wentz didn’t even make the all-Missouri Valley Football Conference team and Stick didn’t make it until his senior year.
“We’re not going to be big in stats, it’s not the thing we do here at NDSU,” Hedberg said. “But when you’re 49-3 as the starting quarterback (Stick), that’s pretty good and that tells you a lot about the position.”
Where Walker, Jensen, Wentz and Stick do help is on the recruiting trail. At least their reputations do. Certainly, it helped land Lance from Marshall, Minn.
“Kids see all of that and they have an interest in NDSU because of that,” Hedberg said. “They’re aware of what has occurred with those guys and the success they have had after college. But also, the system we run is very conducive to quarterbacks looking at the next level.”
Wentz was the toast of the 2016 NFL Draft. Stick went in the fifth round to the Los Angeles Chargers last spring. Jensen spent time in NFL training camps and the CFL.
“We’ve had some good history here and hopefully it will continue through the next few years,” Hedberg said, “both with the guys in our program and incoming guys.”