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FCS success stories Joe Flacco, Carson Wentz meet as Ravens face Eagles

Carson Wentz and Joe Flacco have a few things in common as two of four FCS QBs ever taken in the first round.

Carson Wentz doesn't remember the first time he heard the comparison or how many times it has been brought up since. His ascent from a prolific Football Championship Subdivision quarterback at North Dakota State to the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft to the Philadelphia Eagles' season-opening starter has been a blur.

But he knows all about Joe Flacco's story and if people want to a draw a parallel between that and his own, that's just fine.

"I think some guys would bring his name up, and I just always pointed out, 'He went and did it. He went and did it right away,'" Wentz said. "Again, everybody is different, but I think he has shown that it can be done."

Before Flacco made the transition from Delaware to Ravens starting quarterback as a rookie in 2008, and ultimately led them to a Super Bowl four years later, signal callers like Rich Gannon (Delaware), Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Phil Simms (Morehead State) and Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) traveled similar paths from FCS (formerly Division I-AA) programs to NFL stardom.

Former FCS quarterbacks are spread throughout the NFL, but Sunday afternoon's game between the Ravens (7-6) and Eagles (5-8) features the only two starters that played at that level. Flacco and Wentz will duel in the regular-season home finale at M&T Bank Stadium in a game the Ravens likely have to win to keep their dicey playoff hopes alive.

"You always look at the I-AA guys and the small-school guys," said Flacco, who grew up outside Philadelphia. "I feel like you have a little bit of a connection to them."

Flacco's connection extends to the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo and the New England Patriots' Jimmy Garoppolo, who both played their college ball at Eastern Illinois; to the New York Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick, a former Harvard standout; and to the Cleveland Browns' Josh McCown, who played his final college season at Sam Houston State after starting at Southern Methodist.

All of them initially faced questions about whether the level of competition they played in college would allow them to handle all that leading an NFL team and operating a complex offense entail. And all but Garoppolo, now serving an apprenticeship under Tom Brady, have had at least moderate success while fashioning lengthy careers.

"I have always said that when you are playing quarterback, it is all relative. I was not playing at Delaware, Tony was not playing at Eastern Illinois, with USC wide receivers," Flacco said. "We had good wide receivers, but at the same time, it is all comparable. Every now and then, you get a guy that has the ability to play wide receiver, has the ability to play quarterback, and has the physical traits to do that, and for whatever reason, he was overlooked. A lot of the time when you are down at that level, guys can play football. They just do not run 4.3 [40-yard dashes].

"As a quarterback, you are still throwing into the same windows. You are still making the same decisions, reading the defenses and doing all of those things. If you get a guy that can do that, and you also feel like he has the physical traits to play in this league, then I think the jump is not really any different than any other level."

Finding Flacco

On a windy and rainy March day about a month before the 2008 draft, the Ravens sent a contingent of coaches and executives up I-95 North to work out Flacco at Delaware. Throwing to receivers he didn't know on a muddy and unlined field, and tossing wet and sticky footballs, Flacco misfired on only five of 150 passing attempts. If there were concerns about the level of competition Flacco played at Delaware, they were dispelled by his size, arm strength and intangibles.

"When you watch a guy throwing in high school, at a junior college, or at Delaware or at the University of Alabama, you get a chance to watch his physical tools," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the NFL scouting combine this past February. "You match that with the opportunity to sit down with him and judge what his maturity level is. There's a whole process that goes along with it. You just cannot sit there and say a guy cannot play in the National Football League if he played at a smaller division."

There are too many success stories at the quarterback position that prove Newsome's point. Flacco, Simms and Warner all led their teams to championships. McNair and Gannon started in Super Bowls.

The adjustment period for "small-school" quarterbacks took longer for some than others. Gannon didn't start his first NFL game until his fifth pro season. Warner, who was undrafted, famously stocked shelves at a grocery store as he awaited his opportunity before he resuscitated his career in the Arena Football League.

"Some guys kind of seamlessly transition a little quicker than others. Some, it takes several years [or] in some cases, even more than that, to get at their peak performance," Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "Both ways have worked to where the quarterbacks have come out and have been great, great quarterbacks.

"Much of it is the way that they're built and I'm talking the whole package, and the next thing would be what type of team they're on — the players around them, the defenses, all those things come into play to be able to play at a high level at that quarterback spot."

Here to stay

It took a season-ending shoulder injury to Kyle Boller and a serious tonsil infection to Troy Smith to move Flacco atop the Ravens' 2008 quarterback depth chart. Wentz, meanwhile, started training camp as the third-stringer behind veteran Sam Bradford and free-agent acquisition Chase Daniel. But the Eagles traded Bradford to the quarterback-needy Minnesota Vikings just days before the start of the regular season and Wentz leapfrogged Daniel for the starting job.

While the Ravens didn't put too much on Flacco early, relying more on their running game and an established defense, the Eagles have been unable to ease Wentz in. He has already thrown the ball 498 times, 70 more passing attempts than Flacco had in 16 games of his rookie regular season. Only recently has the burden appeared to strain Wentz, who has thrown seven interceptions and been sacked 11 times during the Eagles' current four-game losing streak.

"We've asked him to do quite a bit — manage the run game, passing game, protections and things of that nature," Eagles first-year head coach Doug Pederson said. "Obviously, with the way we've played the last couple of weeks, you never want to ask your rookie quarterback to throw the ball 60 times and then 46 times like he did this past weekend. It's usually a recipe for disaster."

Wentz, though, has justified the Eagles' decision to look past his small-program background and trade a cadre of draft picks to get in position to select the quarterback. Ravens coach John Harbaugh paid him the ultimate compliment this week when he said Wentz hasn't resembled a rookie at any point this season.

Pederson was a three-year starting quarterback at Northeast Louisiana before embarking on a 12-year NFL playing career. He said he sees several similarities in some of the most successful "small-school" quarterbacks, from a "tough-minded" attitude to toughness and strong leadership skills.

"We definitely looked at it, but it never came up in the discussions," said Pederson when asked whether the level of competition Wentz played in college was a concern. "It was never one of the deciding factors to take him or not to take him. We just felt like the kid could play football.

"You watch his college film, and he's won a lot of college games, and he has led that team to several national championships. That was just the exciting thing about him, watching him on tape. Then, when you get to know him, everything you see on tape holds true to when you get a chance to meet him in person."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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FCS quarterbacks drafted in first round

Only four quarterbacks who played in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) have been first-round picks in the NFL draft. Two of them will be playing each other Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Player; Year Drafted; Pick No.; School; Years in NFL; Record; Passing yards; Passing TDs; Notes

(* active quarterback)

Phil Simms; 1979; 7; Morehead State; 15; 95-64; 33,462; 199; Made two Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls with Giants, capturing Super Bowl MVP once

Steve McNair; 1995; 3; Alcorn State; 13; 91-62; 31,304; 174; Reached Super Bowl and won MVP with Titans before finishing career with Ravens

*Joe Flacco; 2008; 18; Delaware; 9; 82-53; 31,904; 179; Won Super Bowl with Ravens and is franchise leader in most significant passing categories

*Carson Wentz; 2016; 2; North Dakota State; 1; 5-8; 3,215; 13; Highest-picked FCS quarterback; won NFL Rookie of the Week three times in first five weeks

Other notables

Ron Jaworski; 1973; 37; Youngstown State; 17; 73-69-1; 28,190; 179; Drafted by Rams; spent bulk of career with Eagles, who he led to first Super Bowl appearance in 1980

Rich Gannon; 1987; 98; Delaware; 17; 76-56; 28,743; 180; Reached four Pro Bowls, won MVP and guided Raiders to Super Bowl appearance

*Tony Romo; 2003; undrafted; Eastern Illinois; 14; 78-49; 34,154; 247; Four-time Pro Bowl selection; stepped in as Cowboys starter in 2006 and held position until this year, when injury opened door for rookie Dak Prescott

Kurt Warner; 1994; undrafted; Northern Iowa; 13; 67-49; 32,344; 208; After stint in Arena Football League, earned two MVPs and reached three Super Bowls, winning one

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