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FRISCO, Texas -- Quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, experienced a collegiate and NFL development path similar to that of an out-of-control roller coaster, but that's set to get back on track in 2024 with the Dallas Cowboys

How he became a Dallas Cowboy 

Many major NCAA programs wanted him to become a full-time linebacker or safety after he played both sides of the football in high school, but he chose North Dakota State, an FCS school, because it provided him the chance to remain a quarterback. After redshirting as a freshman after throwing one pass in 2018, Lance dominated: he won the Jerry Rice award (top FCS freshman) and Walter Payton award (top offensive FCS player, first freshman to ever win award) and Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player award (first freshman to ever win award) in 2019. 

He set the NCAA record for the most pass attempts in a season (287) without throwing an interception. Lance racked up 28 passing touchdowns in addition to 2,786 passing yards on a 66.9% completion percentage to go along with 1,100 yards on the ground and 14 rushing touchdowns on 169 carries, averaging 6.5 yards a carry. He powered NDSU to a perfect 16-0 season, making them the first collegiate team to go 16-0 since 1894. Then, his development came to a screeching halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

The FCS opted to play out its season in the spring one game into the fall of 2020, putting Lance in a bind. He went off once again in the only fall game that year, throwing for 149 yards, two passing touchdowns and an interception -- the only one of his career -- on 15 of 30 passing while compiling 143 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns on 15 carries in a win against Central Arkansas. 

Lance opted out of the spring season and based on 318 collegiate passes, the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan saw enough to trade up nine spots with the Miami Dolphins, from the 12th overall pick to the third overall pick, at the cost of three first-round picks and a 2022 third-round selection to select the dual-threat collegiate dynamo. How small was Lance's body of work in college? Twenty-eight NFL quarterbacks threw more passes in 2023 than Lance did in three seasons of college football at North Dakota State (318) from 2018-2020. 

After a redshirt year in the NFL behind Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021, Lance was primed to start and take Shanahan's offense to new heights in 2022. That became derailed after he suffered a season-ending fractured ankle that required surgery in Week 2 because by the time he was healthy again, the 49ers had become Brock Purdy's team. Thus, San Francisco dumped him when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called and offered to send them Dallas' 2024 fourth-round without consulting with head coach Mike McCarthy on the eve of the team's 2023 preseason finale back on Aug. 25. 

What's new in 2024

The timing of the trade hurt Lance as he had to learn an entirely new offense without the benefit of offseason practice reps, which meant his 2023 consisted mostly of watching incumbent quarterback Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush run the scheme in practices and games. Now, Lance has his first real opportunity this preseason to prove what he can do and if he can flash some of the potential that led to him being the third overall pick in the 2021 draft.

"I think the biggest thing for me, I've learned a lot about myself," Lance said of the past year. "Who I am on and off the field, and this offseason, I feel probably at my best just as far as mentally, physically, spiritually. Just knowing who I am, where I am and being able to be present."

McCarthy applauded his athleticism at organized team activities (OTAs) on Wednesday and declared he will take a huge chunk of the snaps in the Cowboys' preseason games.  

"There are thresholds and development for every position. Quarterback is no different and Trey is no different. Obviously, he had the prior experience in San Francisco," McCarthy said at OTAs on Wednesday. "It's obviously an experience he'll always be able to draw from, involved in a different offense. Just the way the position is played. It's played differently for every quarterback and in every organization. My point is, he's crossing that threshold and I've been very, very pleased. The athletic ability is top notch. We've adjusted some things in his motion. I don't want to get into the specifics of that but you can see the improvement in timing in young quarterbacks, and he's no different. He needs reps and you're trying to give him as many reps as you can throughout this offseason program. He will take a large part of the preseason, that's the design. Him and I talk about preseason quite often. That's what we're building towards."

A smile and a laugh broke out across Lance's face at the mention of being a featured part of Dallas' preseason plans as McCarthy seldom utilizes his starters in the league's exhibition games. Prescott has never thrown a preseason pass under McCarthy, who became his head coach four years ago in 2020. 

"I'm excited. I'm very excited," Lance said Wednesday at OTAs while grinning. "I haven't played a snap obviously in a live game since last preseason [with the 49ers], so just excited. Looking forward to it and making sure I'm ready to go when that time does come."

What's been better for Lance in 2024? Only everything. 

"Protections, everything. I feel like I'm in a much better place this year," Lance said. "As far as knowing the guys, knowing how they run routes, everything like that."

He maintained most of working with his throwing process has come in the footwork department thanks to learning McCarthy's shotgun-heavy West Coast offense after beginning his NFL career in Shanahan's under-center, run-heavy attack. The Cowboys threw the ball out of the shotgun on first-and-10 or longer on 167 passes in 2023, the 11th-most in the NFL. On the flip side, the 49ers did so on 143 passes last season, tied for the 10th-fewest such throws last season along with the Pittsburgh Steelers

"I haven't really talked at all about my throwing motion, just footwork really and the different drops we do with play-action," Lance said. ... "San Francisco, we weren't really dropping back and passing out of the [shot] gun [formation on] first and 10 too many times. It's a totally different here where we can do that. We have the guys to do it, and obviously the coaching staff to do it as well."

If the worst-case scenario occurs in Prescott's contract negotiations with the Jones family and the Cowboys' front office, Lance would be Dallas' most promising, young option as the team simply won't be bad enough to pick a quarterback in the top 10 of a draft. They have won at least 12 games in a row each of the last three years, something not done by the Cowboys since their 1990s Super Bowl dynasty years. Despite the potential for an awkward dynamic, Prescott made certain his relationship with Lance is warm and welcoming. 

"First off, it's my belief that you're as good as your weakest link, so for me, it's about bringing young guys on. And by any means, I'm not calling Trey the weakest link so don't try to take that out of words or make a clicker for you guys, I know how y'all get. But it's about bringing others along, and any time I do that, I make myself and find myself better," Prescott said at OTAs on Wednesday when asked about helping his high pedigree backup. "So, just in the sense of helping Trey and talking with Trey, I'm making myself better. I'm more focused on my feet. I'm not going to tell him to do something and then do something opposite and be hypocritical. It holds me more accountable, and it's fun. At the end of the day, I love watching somebody get better, watching somebody get excited, get the joy that I get when I improve from one day to the next. That's the way this team is going to get better, and it's not just me doing that, it's other guys, receivers, bringing on young guys, the offensive linemen bringing those guys with them. That's the culture we believe we have here."

Confidence, an element Prescott identified as most crucial to a quarterback's success, is something Lance has exponentially grown in over the past year. 

"So much better," Prescott said of Lance's development from when he arrived at the end of the preseason last year to today. "I'm excited for where he is now, from the time that he came in. First and foremost, I think this position is 80% confidence. Obviously understanding his last situation, but for him to come in here, come in open arms, be such a great teammate, be accepted by all his teammates, and just really want to help this team. I think what's changed is his mindset. Just come in with that mindset of working and, 'How can I get better?' Asking me questions, Coop (Rush) questions, coaches questions. He's calling young guys [to go throw]. He works his ass off. He's pushing me. I can tell you that."

Lance concurred.

"I think it's [my confidence] much, much higher than it was when I got into the NFL for sure," Lance said. "I think I kind of didn't know what to expect, that's probably most rookies at one point or another throughout the first year, first offseason, but I feel great about where I'm at. Continue to get better, continue to learn and just continue to be a better quarterback."

Prescott, the NFL's passing touchdowns leader (36) in 2023, maintains he doesn't feel threatened by his 24-year-old backup as he enters the final year of a four-year, $160 million contract in 2024. That is of course provided that the three-time Pro Bowler's normal allotment of practice reps remains unchanged. 

"I don't like to let other people get more reps than me," Prescott said. "Trey's the person I've got to watch because he's trying to get up there in rep count. It's a testament to him and how he's putting in to this. I've seen him, and he's gotten better. Yeah, he can play. ... As long as he's getting better, I promise you I'm getting better. I encourage it. I hope he pushes me. I hope he makes people think. I know who I'll be and I know who I am and confident in the person and player that I am. I hope he pushes me."

To even entertain a "competition" with Prescott, he will need to usurp longtime backup Cooper Rush for the QB2 role. Rush won four of his five starts in place of Prescott back in the 2022 season when Dak required surgery on his throwing hand because of a Week 1 thumb injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We [Lance and Rush] were just talking about that [their competition]. My mindset hasn't really changed," Lance said of the opportunity to compete to rise up the Cowboys depth chart to the primary backup spot. "I haven't really attacked this offseason any differently. Just worrying about controlling what I can control, continuing to learn the offense, continuing to get closer with these guys and the coaching staff as well. I'm just working on that."