It is four weeks before the NFL draft, and Josh Allen doesn’t seem the least bit concerned. Not by the freezing rain or unrelenting winds that plague the University of Wyoming’s spring football practice. Nor by the likelihood that he passed up millions of dollars to return to this.
Wearing a blue non-contact jersey and brown leggings, Allen, Wyoming’s starting quarterback, launches footballs around War Memorial Stadium. On one play, he breaks free of the pocket and glides to his right, connecting on a perfect throw to his wideout on the sideline. Minutes later, he throws the ball 45 yards on a line, cutting through the elements with ease.
Nestled between two mountain ranges, both of which are encased in clouds, the city of Laramie is insulated from the outside world. This is a place of both natural beauty and lingering Old West charm. It is not typically the home of a football talent this grand—a quarterback capable of throwing the ball 85 yards and running the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds.
At 6’5” and 235 pounds, Allen has grown into the NFL prototype and a wildly intriguing prospect. Although franchise quarterbacks do not typically surface in places like this, the then-redshirt sophomore’s life began to change last fall on this very turf.
It was then that an NFL general manager took in a Wyoming practice with no intention of scouting the team’s quarterback. A few hours later, he approached head coach Craig Bohl with a question about his starting QB: “Who the hell is that guy?”
Not long after, another general manager had a similar Laramie revelation during a visit. “I don’t know anything about him, but I can tell you that with his physical stature, arm strength and accuracy, he’s an NFL camp guy right now,” he told Bohl after practice.
Word spread over the next few months to the point that Allen had a decision to make: return to Wyoming—one of the few programs that wanted him in the first place—or declare for the NFL after only starting one season at the Division I level.
That decision brought him here: to the cold and the rain and the reality of another year in Laramie.
“The NFL will be there,” Allen says a day later. “I don’t want to be the guy that gets drafted in the first round, plays four years and then is out of the league. I want to be a guy that plays 15 years with the same organization and be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.’’
One can’t help but share the curiosity that NFL GMs had on their visits. Not just why Allen said no to the NFL, but how he arrived here. And perhaps more importantly—the question that will be asked endlessly by general managers and coaches over the next 12 months—just how special can he be?
The cashier at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit across the street from War Memorial Stadium cannot help himself. The moment Allen enters, he doesn’t take his eyes off him.
He knows his order by now: four chicken sliders, a salad and a side of waffle fries. When Allen orders only one sandwich because of a workout in 45 minutes, the man looks concerned. Allen says hello before retreating to a table in the back of the restaurant.
“Being the quarterback of a small school,” Allen says as he sits, “your name kind of gets around.”
Over the past four months, he has been thanked countless times for returning to the program. His white Dodge Ram with 35-inch tires is now known around town.
As his profile grows, those inside Wyoming’s football program feel like his body will continue to grow with it. There are already discussions about whether he’ll be listed at 6’6” by the start of next season. Seated now, Allen towers over the table. His shoulders fill out his gray sweatshirt.
He wears a brown Wyoming baseball cap and short brown stubble. While his body has changed significantly over the past three years, Allen hasn’t lost his baby face. He didn’t shave until he arrived in Laramie, which his coaches and teammates remind him of as often as possible. He wears his scattered facial hair proudly.
When he speaks of his roots—growing up on a farm in Firebaugh, California—his voice beams with pride. “It’s different,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
When he speaks of his future in the NFL, he revisits a conversation he shared with his roommates before last season, telling them he would be a first-round pick in 2017 despite having only 15 Division I snaps under his belt.
He manages to sound both confident and endearing at the same time. As he traces his path to Wyoming rather than to a football-obsessed town in the Southeast or the bright lights of the West Coast, his tone shifts. The attitude that has driven him all these years and will carry him forward suddenly appears.
“The only team I have respect for is Eastern Michigan,” Allen says of the only FBS program besides Wyoming to offer him a scholarship. As for the rest, he says: “You didn’t find me, and you didn’t offer me. I don’t like your team. I don’t like your program.”
Josh’s father, Joel Allen, is quick to note that Firebaugh, California, has two stoplights. On the outskirts of a town that is 45 minutes from Fresno is a small ranch where he and his wife, LaVonne Allen, have raised their family. A basketball hoop and batting cage are in their backyard. The nearest neighbor is miles away.
Until recently, Joel and LaVonne also owned and managed a family restaurant, The Farmer’s Daughter. Earlier this year, they sold the business in large part because they wanted to free up time to attend their sons’ sporting events.
Joel is a row-crop farmer by trade, something he passed on to his sons Jason and Josh. In the summers under the blistering California sun, Josh and Jason spent time in the fields. They would move pipes to water the crops, weed cotton and drive a tractor when they weren’t playing sports.
Long before he could touch 90 miles per hour on the radar gun, which he did in high school, Josh wanted to be a major league pitcher. He also loved basketball and excelled at it. Then he found football, and he knew it would ultimately win out.
Bill Magnusson, the former head football coach at Firebaugh High School, first learned of Josh when he was only six years old. Having spent more than three decades in Firebaugh, Magnusson knew Josh’s father and grandfather, Buzz Allen, who helped build the original high school. The gymnasium, Buzz Allen Gym, is named in his honor, and he knew any son of the Allens was worth a long look.
When Magnusson finally was able to coach Josh in high school, he was 6’2” and 180 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.5 seconds. His baseball coaches nicknamed him “Tortuga”—tortoise in Spanish.
Although he lacked size and speed, he did not lack ability. Coaches would come see him in person, although it didn’t progress any further. Others didn’t bother visiting a town not known for producing Division I athletes.
“I would send them film, and I wouldn’t hear back,” Magnusson says. “He was doing some really incredible things, and I didn’t get any responses.”
Allen threw for more than 3,000 yards his senior season and accounted for 37 touchdowns. His dream was always to play for Fresno State, his favorite team growing up. His father was a season ticket holder there for many years. Josh even retrieved the kicking tee at a few games as a child.
Although Josh and the family took an unofficial visit to the campus during the recruiting process, Fresno State never offered. Many NAIA schools did. So did Division III programs. So did the junior college programs selling visions of more significant offers down the line.
“I didn’t want to walk on to a Division I program,” Allen says. “I felt like I was scholarship-worthy and didn’t want to put my parents through that financial burden, even though they were in a place where I could have walked on anywhere. I was doing this for them.”
While bigger programs didn’t venture out to Firebaugh, Ernie Rodriguez did. Rodriguez, the offensive coordinator at Reedley College at the time, made Allen his project.
“He’s putting up these big numbers and nobody’s really paying attention to it,” Rodriguez says. “I didn’t know why these guys were passing on him.”
With few other options, Allen committed to Reedley. It was during his freshman year at the junior college that Wyoming assistant coach David Brown refamiliarized himself with the quarterback.
After spending time on Fresno State’s staff, Brown remembered Allen in high school despite the school passing on him. Things were different now.
When Brown got a tip about a 6’5”, 225-pound junior college quarterback in the midst of a growth spurt, he couldn’t believe it was the same player. After not starting early on, Allen accounted for 35 touchdowns in Reedley’s final seven games.
“Usually with a big-time guy, especially a quarterback, you watch five plays and you know what you have,” Brown says. “Because of his ability, he could play at Alabama. But no one saw that. Somehow his talent just sort of slipped through the cracks. Guys like this don’t usually end up at Wyoming. It’s not normal.”
Louisville, Indiana and Memphis showed interest in Allen, but it never progressed any further. Eastern Michigan offered him a scholarship. Although Wyoming didn’t plan to add a JUCO quarterback, a decommitment late in the recruiting process created an opening.
Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen began digging on Allen. He spent time in his hometown and in his high school. He went to see his junior college, hoping to collect as much information as possible.
“You try to look back,” Vigen says. “Did I see something? I think what I saw was a combination of where he came from and his backstory. This wasn’t a 365-day-a-year-quarterback like so many of those kids have to be in California. This was a three-sport kid.”
Once again, all major programs passed. With a chance to work with the braintrust that helped mold Carson Wentz at North Dakota State—now one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the NFL—Allen settled on Wyoming.
Before he did, he reached out to Fresno State, giving his dream school one last chance to recruit him. It declined.
Truth be told, Craig Bohl is not yet certain what he has. From the sofa inside his Laramie office, the head coach of Wyoming is looking for the appropriate words to describe his quarterback’s potential.
He has seen offensive brilliance before—back when he coached the Nebraska defense in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I’m an old defensive guy,” he says. “You got a dude who’s 6’5”, 235 pounds and can also run a 4.6 rolling down on ya? His arm strength is on par with Peyton Manning. I coached against Peyton.”
He doesn’t take it further beyond the physical measurements, though. Instead, he merely leans back and smiles.
The comparisons to Wentz are too convenient not to make. While most coaches hope to have a quarterback with such abilities once in a lifetime, Bohl and Vigen are going on their second in five years.
“They’re about the same size, they’re about the same speed and they have similar arm strength,” Bohl says of the comparison between Allen and Wentz. “These were underdeveloped guys in high school who really had the competitive spirit.”
Allen’s Wyoming debut season in 2015 was cut short because of injury. His collision with a defender 15 snaps into his Division I career broke his clavicle in seven places. His season ended with surgery days later.
Before the injury, those around Allen saw glimpses of his athleticism. Former Wyoming running back Brian Hill’s peek came on the basketball court when Hill attempted a dunk.
Allen leapt off the floor and rejected it. “That’s when I knew,” Hill says.
Former Wyoming wideout Tanner Gentry, one of Allen’s best friends and top receiving targets from a year ago, recalls his first impression. “He had a baby face and long hair,” Gentry says. “You could just tell he came from a small town, and he didn’t give off the impression of being an elite athlete. Then he threw the ball.”
With his shoulder healed and even stronger than before the injury, Allen showcased incredible gifts and inexperience last fall. His final stat line told the story: 36 touchdowns (including one receiving touchdown), 3,203 yards passing, 523 rushing yards and 15 interceptions.
“His decision-making is an area where we have to make strides,” Bohl says. “His completion percentage [56 percent] needs to improve. The unforced errors have to get better. Last year was the first year he really started, and we’d like to think we can do more with his physical skills and mental growth.”
His performance against Nebraska last fall was a prime example. In one moment, Allen rolled to his right and connected on a 35-yard bullet to his wideout in the back of the end zone that traveled over the secondary. In that same game, a 52-17 Wyoming loss, he turned the ball over six times.
Because Allen has similar mobility, Vigen has spent time this offseason watching film of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the way he works with receivers on broken plays. Improvisation will always be a critical part of Allen’s game. The goal now is to find a balance between the astonishing throws—the ones NFL scouts will show their bosses—and more routine ones.
“He made a lot of amazing throws last year,” Vigen says. “But we want him to make all the easy throws, too. That didn’t always happen, and we’re trying to clean that up.”
At a table in Wool Growers Restaurant in Los Banos, California, Joel Allen lifted his glass. The next morning, his son planned to declare for the NFL.
On hand were Josh’s mother, apprehensive on the inside but all smiles on the outside, his grandparents, a few close family friends and Josh’s girlfriend, Brittany. And there in the center of it all was Josh.
“To Josh’s future,” Joel said to the table. “No matter what he does and where he goes, we’re going to support him 100 percent.”
Allen planned to tell his coaches he was forgoing his final two years of college eligibility the following morning. Earlier that night, he called a few of his soon-to-be former wide receivers and told them he was leaving.
The next step was to leave for San Diego and train for the draft. All arrangements were made. His bags were packed. He was ready to go.
That night, however, Allen couldn’t sleep. The relief he expected to feel after making up his mind never came. The following morning, Vigen called to see where his quarterback stood. Allen declined to answer, suddenly uneasy.
It had been nearly three weeks since Wyoming’s season ended with a loss to BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl—pushing him closer to the January deadline for the NFL draft. Josh’s mother, LaVonne, cried that entire stretch. “It just didn’t feel right,” she says.
The temptation to declare was understandable. After being overlooked for so long, Allen was the talk of the NFL. “People were promising this and that, telling us he could go No. 1 overall in the draft,” Joel Allen says. “Everyone painted a very pretty picture.”
The hesitation for Josh Allen came from two separate conversations. One was a phone call from Wentz, who didn’t try to sway him. He merely painted a picture of the reality of playing football for a living: the burden that comes from leading a team of husbands and fathers rather than college kids.
Another was a phone call from QB coach and guru George Whitfield, whom Allen had never met at the time. Whitfield asked Allen a question: If he had to, could he go four quarters against the Pittsburgh Steelers defense right now?
Unlike quarterbacks Whitfield had queried in the past, Allen said “no” without hesitation, an answer his future quarterback coach respected.
“His talent is mythical,” says Whitfield, whose past clients include Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. “He’s Cam’s frame, but he can stop, start and has the antenna of a Manziel. It’s not a referendum on talent. It’s flight hours. He’s a young, talented pilot. He just needs more hours in the plane.”
With new perspective, Allen altered course. He unpacked his bags and canceled his San Diego accommodations. He called his college coaches and told them he was coming back for his junior season.
The moment the Chicago Bears select North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Allen’s gray iPhone begins to buzz nonstop in his four-bedroom apartment.
For the next few hours, he answers texts and calls and eats pizza from his couch. Instead of wearing a suit, he has on Wyoming shorts.
Those inside his inner circle can’t help themselves. They wonder what he’s thinking as Trubisky strolls across the stage and greets Roger Goodell.
After Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes is selected 10th overall and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson goes 12th, they can contain themselves no longer.
“That could’ve been you,” they tell him.
For a moment, the uneasiness returns. Allen allows himself to wonder what might have been had he never unpacked his bags. “I wasn’t mad at myself, but I had to remind myself why I made this decision,” Allen says. “The plan is not just to get drafted.”
The following week, Allen spends time working with Whitfield in Laramie. As another class of quarterbacks signs endorsement deals and buys luxury cars, Allen goes back to work with his QB coach in a town he has fallen in love with, out of the sight of the outside world a while longer.
“Every quarterback in this draft should exhale,” Whitfield says. “I think he would have been the first quarterback taken. If you lined him up with the rest of the QBs in this past class, I don’t think any one of those guys comes in with the skill set or nuclear element that he comes in with.”
Over the next 12 months, NFL general managers and scouts will size him up. They will process the tools and another year of film and how his abilities project. They will flock to Laramie, Wyoming, of all places, to watch perhaps the best football player in the country.
In time, Allen will once again be asked to make a decision about his future. But before then he has a season to play and a Mountain West Conference championship to win.
And in November, in what could be one of his final collegiate games, he will likely get his one and only crack at Fresno State, one of the many programs that didn’t see this coming.
Adam Kramer is the national lead college football writer and CFB video analyst at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @Kegsneggs