The Cultivation of Carson Wentz: A Conversation with Ron Wingenbach
Originally published on www.buckscountyherald.com
North Dakotans know a lot about planting and harvesting.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics rank the Peace Garden State as first or second in the country in producing wheat, barley, oats, sunflowers and edible beans.
In 2016, North Dakota harvested a home grown bumper crop of quarterback. Carson Wentz’s story is just short of incredible. The Bismarck native played just one full collegiate season, at a 1-AA school no less, yet elevated his game to become both the second overall pick of the NFL draft and the cornerstone of the Philadelphia Eagles’ franchise.
Ron Wingenbach had a front row seat to Carson’s cultivation.
A head football coach for 34 years- the last 28 at Bismarck Century High School- Wingenbach coached Wentz and still stays in touch with him.
In 2007, Wentz set Century’s single season school passing record. Wentz later attended North Dakota State University and had an excellent athletic career.
Except that Wentz would be Carson’s brother Zach, an Academic All-American who is still SU’s (local parlance) all time doubles leader in baseball. In 2007, Carson was a 5’10” ninth grader playing on the freshman team.
The next year, Carson played for the sophomore team and saw reps at JV. “Carson never got to showcase his talent until his senior year,” Wingenbach said. “He was very limited in his junior year because of an injury. As a sophomore, he wasn’t ready to play at that level.”
There are four classes of prep football in North Dakota- A, AA, AAA and nine-man for the tiny schools. Century, which has 1225 students in four grades, plays AAA. Carson was working his way through a program whose varsity squad repeated as state semi-finalists in North Dakota’s biggest division.
“His junior year is when we thought he was ready to make a big step. And he got hurt. It was kind of a lost season,” Wingenbach said. “In his senior year, we knew he was ready. You talk about a classic example of if you’re good enough, colleges are going to find you. That is a great model for parents. When you get your chance, put your best foot forward and know that someone is going to find you.
“Our base system is a pro I and in 2007, we went to more of a spread Pro I,” Wingenbach described. In 2010, Carson’s senior year, “We took our whole offensive scheme and asked ourselves ‘How can we spread the defense even more?’ His senior year, we had great kids, but not a lot of depth on the offensive and defensive lines so we wanted to take a little of the burden off of them and put it on Carson’s shoulders,” Wingenbach continued. “We ran him a lot more on select plays.”
Carson had an excellent senior season on both sides of the football. Although Century had the luxury of playing platoon football, Wingenbach used Wentz as a defensive “closer”- in the fourth quarter or in the red zone.
“He was a heckuva free safety. With those long strides, he could cover a lot of area,” Wingenbach reminded.
Wentz won the 3A State Player of the Year and again led Century to the state semi-finals: a tough 22-21 loss to Fargo South. (Century would finally break through, winning the state title in 2015 and defending their title last Fall.)
“We started giving him some two-way gos and run-pass options. Usually he kept it,” Wingenbach chuckled. “I tip my hat to Fargo South- they executed down the stretch and they got one in with 23 seconds to go.” Ironically, Fargo South’s quarterback- Griffin Neal- would get time in the New Orleans Saints’ camp.
Offensively, Wentz completed 91 of 149 pass attempts for nearly 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 553 yards and another 13 touchdowns. One way to disguise an NFL caliber arm is to run the ball a lot.
Coaches have a notorious stereotype of being control freaks. It is significant that Wingenbach trusted Wentz to make the right decision. It gives insight into one of Carson Wentz’s best NFL assets: his brain and character.
“You have to have a lot of trust,” Wingenbach pointed out. “If it’s a negative play, you don’t dare say anything to him. Maybe he read it wrong but you gave him that option so as a coach, you live with it.”
Wentz was Century’s valedictorian. Three years later, he won the Elite 89 award for having the highest GPA at the FCS National Championship game…the first of three times he’d win the award.
“He wasn’t a big, big vocal guy but when he did speak, everyone listened,” Wingenbach said. “When he got to the collegiate level and became a starting quarterback, you could sense even more ownership in what he did.”
Amazingly, Wentz didn’t have a single offer on Opening Night of his senior year. “Carson gave me a list of colleges that he was interested in. The majority of them were FCS- North Dakota State. North Dakota. South Dakota State,” Wingenbach recalled. “Later that summer, after he had committed, Steve Spurrier’s staff inquired about his availability. But he already had signed.
“It was during his senior year, probably five games in when I started getting inquiries about his ambitions,” Wingenbach continued. “They saw his size. We were ranked 1 or 2 in the State then and just beat our archrivals. Southern Illinois and South Dakota State inquired. All of the local colleges of course. But Central Michigan was the key because they were Division 1 and if a Division 1 school were interested in him, then why weren’t the Division 2 schools after this kid? Then it started.”
SU was late to the recruiting game, but they were Carson’s top choice all along. He signed with the Bison days after they approached him.
“Their head coach was Craig Bohl, who is now the head coach at Wyoming,” Wingebach remembered. “NDSU were going to play Montana State in the playoffs in early December, and they were flying out that afternoon. Craig has his pilot’s license. He flew himself out in the morning, visited Carson at Century High School, flew back to Fargo, got on the big plane and went out to Montana. It was within a couple of days when Carson committed.
“Carson hit an amazing growth spurt. He was 5’10” 140 and when I looked at him as a senior, we had him down at 6’4” 200. Then he hit even another growth spurt at North Dakota State. He grew two inches and with that came the weight,” Wingenbach pointed out. “In three years- in his senior year and his first two years at NDSU, he grew and matured into quite a large man.”
If the second pick of the Draft plays at an FCS school, he must have been a dominant starter on Day One, right? Not exactly. First, it’s time to level set the “FCS” label.
Wentz entered a North Dakota State Bison program that was every bit of a juggernaut as Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. In the three years that Wentz redshirted or backed up, NDSU went 43-2 and won three national championships. All three titles were double digit point wins.
Brock Jensen, the quarterback ahead of Wentz, played the 2016 season with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks. Incumbent quarterbacks who go 43-2 and have multiple pro opportunities are somewhat hard to dislodge.
“The competitiveness of that conference week in and week out is unbelievable and it preps them well so when you get to that playoff format, they’ve gone through the wringer,” Wingenbach feels. The Bison had seven players on NFL rosters in Opening Day 2016. “People know that they don’t necessarily have to go to Division 1. They can go to NDSU and they have a shot,” Wingenbach continued. “That’s all they ask.”
NDSU went 4-0 against Division 1-A schools from 2010 to 2013. One victim, the 2013 Kansas State Wildcats, later beat Michigan in a bowl game. Clearly, NDSU deserves to be treated as a mid-major FBS school…at a bare minimum. Joe Flacco, who is big and graduated from FCS Delaware, is the cliched comparison to Wentz. Perhaps the more accurate comparison is Ben Roethlisberger, another big quarterback who attended mid-major Miami Ohio.
The Bison opened 2014 by pasting Iowa State 34-14 in Ames. It was Wentz’s first Bison start. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 208 yards and no picks while rushing for 38 more yards. NDSU ran their Division 1 win streak to five.
Wingenbach candidly admits he saw little of this coming while coaching Wentz. “But at the end of his junior year, I went down and watched a game,” Wingenbach recalled, “I told my wife, ‘He has a shot at the NFL just because of his size.’ You don’t coach that.”
Wentz’s NFL shot has long been validated and the rest of his story is familiar. He broke every major NDSU single season record while winning the Most Outstanding Player of the FCS National Championship. Every scout in the NFL now knew Carson Wentz.
Only an eight-game injury as a senior kept him somewhat anonymous- and he came back to repeat as the MOP of the National Championship.
Wingenbach was not surprised that the Eagles traded up to take his protégé. He thought Philadelphia’s system and terminology were great fits for Wentz.
Socially, Philadelphia also seems to be a great fit. Wentz is actively using his platform as a goodwill ambassador to promote faith and charity in both his old and new hometowns. Bismarck is a convergence of Vikings, Packers and Broncos territory but local pubs that get the Eagles games are packed.
“A couple of weeks ago, I went to his Audience of One kickoff banquet in Fargo,” Wingenbach offered. “He and Zach did an outstanding job with the leadership and organization.
“One thing about Carson: Bismarck Legacy High School just opened up four years ago. He has been there talking to the kids too. It’s not just Century. He has exposed himself to all of Bismarck and that means a lot. It’s the whole community,” the coach concluded, “and that’s been pretty special.”
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