BIG RAPIDS, Mich. – A New York Jets scout was here Thursday for practice. An Indianapolis Colts representative visited a couple weeks ago.
Just about every NFL team has sent a scout the past couple years to Ferris State’s campus, which is not an easy place to reach in the Middle of the Mitten – Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Yet with the word out, scouts are making the trip to see Jason Vander Laan, Ferris’ senior quarterback.
Vander Laan won the 2014 Harlon Hill Trophy – the NCAA Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – and last week broke the NCAA all-divisions record for career quarterback rushing yards that had stood since 1992. The 6-foot-4, 244-pounder entered last week’s Ohio Dominican game 71 yards shy when he broke off a 53-yard touchdown run to top it in a 38-17 victory.
But the fourth-year starter can throw the ball, too. He now has 5,128 career rushing yards to go with 7,137 career passing. The prodigious stats and Ben Roethlisberger-sized body have attracted NFL interest and setting the record landed him on ESPN’s Sports Center.
But he’s not ready to talk about the NFL or individual statistics. He’s enjoying his college career that includes 21-straight regular-season victories and doesn’t think he’d be happier anywhere else.
“I love playing here,” Vander Laan said. “My freshman year I might have thought about what it would be like at a bigger school, but I don’t think about it anymore. The NFL is something I’ll worry about after the season. I want to win a national championship, and we know we have to take it one game at a time.”
Coaches and players always say that, but it’s more than a cliché at Ferris for good reason. A year ago the Bulldogs earned a first-round bye in the NCAA Division II playoffs with an 11-0 record, but they were upset by Ohio Dominican 46-33. The loss created resolve over the off-season.
“We returned so many guys and we had about 50 guys stay here in the summer,” he said. “The guys worked hard. It really helps your team to grow. We’re a tighter group as a team and a better team physically.”
Ferris is seeking a playoff return with a 6-0 record and No. 4 NCAA Division II ranking. The Bulldogs play No. 17 Michigan Tech (5-1) Saturday at home in a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game.
The GLIAC has a history of quality football. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly made his bones at Grand Valley State, winning back-to-back NCAA Division II national titles in 2002 and 2003. Grand Valley was one of the Ferris opponents that had trouble game-planning Vander Laan despite his reputation running the ball. In the season’s second game, the Bulldogs adjusted Grand Valley’s stacked line. Vander Laan completed 32-of-45 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns while running 20 times for 77 yards and three more TDs. Ferris won 61-24. “I think about 250 yards of that were on bubble screens,” Vander Laan said. “They wanted to play us side to side. We don’t care who they want to get the ball because we’ll get it to them. We’ve got enough athletes.”
In the last week’s revenge win over Ohio Dominican, the offense demonstrated remarkable balance. Vander Laan ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns and he passed for 159 and one TD.
For the year, he is averaging 388.2 total yards with 253.7 passing and 134.5 rushing. He has completed 119-of-180 passes for 66.1 percent; and 1,522 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has rushed 131 times for 807 yards with a 6.2 average and 13 touchdowns. He hasn’t lost a fumble.
But eventually the subject will get back to the NFL.
Is he worth a draft pick or will he be signed as an undrafted free agent? Can he play quarterback in the NFL or will he be switched to tight end or H-back? He graduates this semester with a degree in actuarial science. That will allow him time to focus on preparing for the draft without abandoning school as do so many college athletes.
With the college spread option offenses producing more athletic quarterbacks, NFL teams have taken notice of the New England Patriots’ success converting former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman into one of the league’s top receivers.
“I’m not worried about arm strength, but I’ll have to transition to being a pocket passer,” Vander Laan said. “That will be different for me. Whether I go as a quarterback or a different position will be figured out later. I have a good body for quarterback or tight end. I’ll play whatever they want.”
His career has been quite a rise from lightly-recruited out of Chicago Christian to NFL prospect. Illinois State wanted him to walk-on as a linebacker. Hillsdale, another Division II Michigan college, was the only other school interested until Ferris stumbled upon him.
A Ferris assistant coach was recruiting a player at a rival school of Chicago Christian. He asked the rival coach if he knew of any other players in the area. The coach suggested taking a look at Vander Laan.
He redshirted as a scout team quarterback his first year, but when there was a coaching change, Vander Laan wondered if the new head coach Tony Annese, now in his fourth year, still wanted him at quarterback.
“I asked him about it,” Vander Laan said. “It was about a 5-second conversation.”
Four years later, NFL scouts are traveling to Ferris to see what Annese saw.
“Jason is such a humble individual who has represented our program in a first-class manner,” Annese said. “I firmly believe there’s not another finer or better person in college football out there.”