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Rookie QB Trey Lance is the 49ers' future, and he happily awaits it

It had been seven months since Trey Lance officially declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. His plan to remain at North Dakota State for the fall, and the school's decision to play just one game in 2020 amid the pandemic to spotlight the first-round prospect, signaled his intentions two months earlier.

What Lance never expected was that his personal, extended waiting game would manifest into the biggest mystery of the draft: Which quarterback were the 49ers selecting at No. 3?

After several weeks of intense examination and prodding from several teams, San Francisco was where Lance wanted to be. He believed he'd impressed in interviews and made a connection with team brass, particularly coach Kyle Shanahan, and he was ecstatic about how he could fit into its offense.

By the time the 49ers were finally on the clock, Lance's guess was "50-50" that he'd be their guy. But their silence down the stretch gave him reason to doubt.

"I honestly did not know," Lance said Wednesday during a phone interview. "I wished all day, and my agent was telling me all day that we should have an idea, or even the week leading up to it, that we should have an idea going into it, and credit to them. They did a great job of (keeping it a secret)."

The big question now is when he'll play. The 49ers have been adamant about keeping incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason, with owner Jed York recently outlining a world in which he's still on the team through the 2022 campaign. The embattled QB didn't wait for a trade to materialize during the three-day draft to reach out to the player tasked to eventually take his job.

Lance said Jimmy G was the first of his new teammates to text him -- his welcome message pointing out they are FCS brethren -- and one of the first people overall.

"That meant a lot to me and people in my corner," Lance said. "That shows a lot about the type of person he is, and the type of teammate. I was very thankful that he reached out to me and I'm super excited to get there and learn as much as I can from him."

That, of course, applies even more so to Shanahan. Few in football are celebrated for their offensive excellence and QB elevation like the 49ers' fifth-year coach. Much of his work, and not always by choice, has been with pocket passers. His experience partly contributed to the groundswell of reporting and mock drafts linking Alabama's Mac Jones to the Niners. While Lance didn't know he was their pick until moments before it became public, his private conversations with Shanahan offered an inkling.

It was clear to him that the 49ers have a lot more in their playbook than what they've put on tape the past few years. Drafting the 6-foot-4, 224-pound dual-threat -- Lance is arguably the most physically gifted QB Shanahan's had -- suggests San Francisco is looking to evolve on offense.

"I think coach Shanahan gets put in a box a little bit," Lance said. "I think he can do so many different things and this organization can do so many different things offensively, not only scheme-wise but just the weapons they have.

"Coach Shanahan can make this offense look however he wants it to look and I trust him and his football mind. It's one of the best. I'm just super excited to obviously see what he does and continue to push me outside my comfort zone. I know he can do whatever he wants with the offense to make it successful, and I fully believe he's going to do that."

While there's already been great debate about the Niners' QB succession plan, a discourse that is sure to continue until Lance is the starter, he doesn't have much to say about it. If anything, he's grateful to have Garoppolo involved. It would be nearly unprecedented for him to redshirt, however.

Of the 47 quarterbacks selected in the top three during the common draft era (since 1967), only Carson Palmer did not start at least one game as a rookie, per NFL Research. With only 17 college starts under his belt, Lance is presumed by some to need more time than other first-round QBs before he's game-ready. But his lack of experience, coupled with the fact he played just one game last year, could also compel the 49ers to give him snaps, at least situationally.

It's a catch-22 that Lance said he's not currently concerned with.

"At this point, I haven't really thought that far ahead," Lance said. "My biggest thing now is getting to know the guys and learning from them as much as I can. This team was in the Super Bowl a year ago. There's not many people, especially quarterbacks in my position, that get this opportunity. So I'm definitely going to make the most of it, whatever my role is, help as much as I can."

He's worn similar shoes before, working as a freshman backup to Easton Stick for a North Dakota State team coming off an FCS national championship. Going from under-recruited FCS reserve to franchise QB-in-waiting for a title contender in less than three years hasn't changed Lance's perspective, either. It's broadened it. The 20-year-old frequently attributes his improbable rise to having a strong community. Helping others build theirs, therefore, has become a priority of his.

In the 24 hours before the 49ers drafted him, Lance conducted a host of interviews with national media looking for his thoughts on where and when he might be selected. He also used that platform to discuss mentorship.

Lance served as a spokesperson for Old Spice's 10-year initiative to increase high school graduation rates, which included partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in support of their "Big Draft" mentoring campaign. The push involved fellow first-rounders Kyle Pitts, DeVonta Smith and Micah Parsons, each of whom promoted the program on their social media feeds leading up to the draft. Lance's athletic and academic prowess -- multiple Ivy League schools had recruited him for his 3.9 GPA -- made him an ideal ambassador.

"Trey impressed our team with his skills on the field, and his passion for the critical role mentorship plays in a young person's success," Old Spice vice president Matt Krehbiel said. "We enjoyed learning about his personal experiences and appreciate how he inspires both young people and future mentors alike."

Lance, having signed on with the company just recently, said he was instantly drawn to the opportunity to connect with the youth. He cited the impact Robin Knudson, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff member in his Minnesota hometown, had on him growing up. Lance said she kept him accountable by offering blunt truths, regularly checked in to see if he needed anything, and supported his interests outside of athletics. That experience has motivated him to destigmatize being young and in search of guidance.

"It's OK to go out of your way and look for someone if you don't have (a mentor)," Lance said. "I was fortunate to have mentors in my life who just kind of showed up, but I know it doesn't work that way for everyone. I think the biggest thing is just understanding how important it is, that it's OK to have someone to look up to. It's a good thing. It's something that shouldn't be frowned upon in any way. For me, it has a huge impact on your life, regardless of who it is, where they come from. I wouldn't be in the position I'm in without the mentors that I've had in my life."

It's wisdom that even pertains to his pre-draft process and landing with the Niners. After training diligently with private QBs coach Quincy Avery through his first pro day in mid-March, Lance felt like he needed to improve on his footwork and shifting his weight while throwing. He'd heard about the work Zach Wilson and Justin Fields were doing with John Beck and soon joined them in Southern California.

"I reached out to John and he was more than happy (to train me)," Lance said. "I was super excited just to have that opportunity. For me, it was just about continuing to get outside my comfort zone."

Beck, who briefly played for Shanahan in Washington, was a great resource to learn more about San Francisco's offense. After the 49ers traded up to No. 3 in the draft, Lance was determined to win them over and scheduled another pro day in mid-April. Prior to it, Shanahan relayed to Beck what drills and throws he wanted to see.

Ten days later, Lance was officially a 49er.

"It's kind of a perfect world as far as situations out there," Lance said. "There's not a better one."

No wonder Lance isn't worried about waiting.

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