MOBILE, Ala. - About 70,000 people live in Carson Wentz's hometown of Bismarck, N.D., a figure roughly equivalent to the number of stories written about Wentz, plus the TV clips filmed around his quarterbacking exploits this week for the North team at Saturday's Senior Bowl.
Wentz, 23, unknown to most casual NFL fans a month ago, has become the most talked-about draft prospect of 2016. A week ago, there was speculation about whether he was a first-round talent. The hype meter can go up and down like the stock market, and we have three more months of draft speculation to endure, but Wentz has seemed to be everything in Mobile evaluators hoped he would be - he measured and weighed at a little over 6-5, and at 233 pounds, respectively, then took the field and demonstrated a smooth release, powerful arm, solid touch, good poise. The question now seems to be how high in the first round he goes. Top 15? Top 10? Top five?
The ride so far has been "a little overwhelming. Very surreal. But a tremendous lot of fun, that's for sure," said Doug Wentz, Carson's father, as he watched Thursday's practice from the bleacher seats at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, along with Carson's stepmother, Laurie, and stepsister, Bailey. "He just kind of blossomed. It's been pretty sweet . . . It's been quite a ride."
Wentz was on the periphery of top-level QB discussion when the season began, despite playing for a Football Championship Subdivision school. Then he suffered a broken right wrist in October and missed the remainder of the regular season. Doug Wentz, a Bismarck banker and former linebacker at Division II Northern State (S.D.), said Wednesday they knew right away his son should heal quickly enough to play in the national championship game, and since North Dakota State was vying for its fifth title in a row, the Wentzes felt pretty good about Carson's chances of getting there.
Sure enough, Carson returned and led the Bison past Jacksonville State (Ala.), 37-10, on Jan. 9, gaining rare national TV exposure and igniting the buzz that built toward this week. He's the top FCS quarterbacking prospect since Joe Flacco came out of Delaware - Flacco also making a Senior Bowl week splash - eight years ago, en route to winning a Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens.
"We see Carson at home, and he's the same kid he's always been," Laurie Wentz said. "To see him doing these interviews and see him in the spotlight, and the way he's handling it, it's just such a cool experience. We think of him as a kid, but he's a mature, responsible, articulate adult."
"It's been fun," Carson said Thursday. "That's the biggest thing. Coming down here, obviously, a lot of stressful things, pressure situations, but I try and just keep it light and make it enjoyable . . . It's kinda what I thought, what I expected. A couple more cameras in the face and all that stuff, but it kind of is what it is. It's exciting. It's a good experience."
The Dallas coaching staff is handling the North squad, and Cowboys fans are debating the merits of Wentz as the fourth overall pick. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made a point of saying hello after one practice.
"It's really cool to get to meet him. I didn't even recognize him right away, because he had his hat on, his sunglasses. He was trying to be discreet," Wentz said, becoming perhaps the first person in recorded history to attach that motivation to Jones.
Some top prospects skip the Senior Bowl, which isn't open to draft-eligible underclassmen who haven't graduated, a group that includes many elite talents. For someone such as Wentz, it's an ideal proving ground, a way to show teams he can function playing with and against bigger, faster players than he encountered in his college career.
"From the day I got the invite, I knew I wanted to play in this game. I'm a competitor - I wanted to come out here and compete and show what I was capable of doing . . . With the wrist injury in the middle of the season, I just had to make sure I was healthy. Once I knew I was healthy, it was a no-brainer," he said.
"I didn't know" what would happen in the wake of the broken wrist, Wentz said. "It was a tough one to swallow. I was worried I would never play as a Bison again. It was a blessing that I was able to, in the championship game."
The difference in the talent level around him hasn't been overwhelming, he said:
"Everything happens fast. I feel like I'm reacting fast and playing as a fast level, as well."
Wentz was 5-8, 125 as a high school freshman and just kept growing, though it was hard to attract big-time college attention in Bismarck. But the North Dakota State program dominates its level, so not getting the Alabama or Ohio State offers wasn't a deterrent to Wentz, who always wanted to be a quarterback and always believed in his potential, his father said. Doug Wentz said Carson wants to coach someday.
Wentz is preparing for the Scouting Combine and the rest of the draft experience with Colts quarterback Ryan Lindley, in Irvine, Calif. He said Lindley, having been through the process, is a valuable resource for a QB who doesn't have a large network of NFL alumni from his school to draw upon.
Wentz interviewed in Mobile with the Eagles - and just about everyone else. Teams have more homework to do on Wentz than on, say, Michigan State's Connor Cook, who skipped the Senior Bowl.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday that Wentz "looks like he could play in this league," Pederson expressing eagerness to know more about him.
"I've had countless meetings with lots of coaches and scouts . . . everything's gone well," Wentz said, when asked specifically about the Eagles. "I think physically I've got a lot to offer, with being able to make all the throws, and then some athleticism that people probably wouldn't expect from a big 6-5 kid like myself . . . The system we ran at North Dakota State was very pro-style, multiple."
But the spotlight there was a little different.
On Twitter: @LesBowen