When his high school coach pulled him out of class late in his senior year and drove him to watch spring practice at Fresno State, Josh Allen had only one goal in mind.
He hoped to prove that the best quarterback on the field that day was the one no college wanted.
Allen had carved up opposing defenses all over the Central Valley during a decorated career at Firebaugh High School, but his rifle-armed exploits generated little buzz in recruiting circles. College coaches in talent-rich California seldom recruited somewhere as remote as Firebaugh, a two-stoplight farm town better known for producing melons than athletes.
The program most familiar with Allen was the one based less than an hour’s drive from his family’s front door. Fresno State dispatched an assistant to meet with Allen after he made some impressive throws at a 7-on-7 camp at Bulldog Stadium the previous summer, but head coach Tim DeRuyter halted communication a few months later and opted to target an out-of-state prospect instead.
Being snubbed by the school he grew up supporting weighed heavily on Allen’s mind on the way to Fresno State’s spring practice. As the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks went through passing drills, Allen grabbed a football on the sideline and attempted to match them throw for throw.
When they worked on post routes, he lofted perfectly weighted deep balls to a friend running the same pattern. When they switched to out routes, he followed suit and zipped passes to his friend in stride.
Once practice was over, Allen approached Firebaugh coach Bill Magnusson and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Coach,” Allen said, “I’m better than these guys.”
“You’re what?” Magnusson asked.
“I’m better,” Allen replied.
If Allen’s words seemed brash at the time, they only sound prescient now. The farm boy who graduated from high school with zero scholarship offers is now one of college football’s premier quarterbacks and a threat to be the first quarterback taken in next April’s NFL draft.
In his first full season as the University of Wyoming’s starting quarterback last year, Allen made many of the programs that passed on him regret that decision. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns while leading a Cowboys team that won just two games the previous season to eight victories and a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“I was trying to show every college they made a mistake by not recruiting me,” Allen said. “I played pissed off and I had a lot of success doing that.”
When Allen decided last winter to return to Wyoming for his redshirt junior season, many NFL scouts instantly inserted him alongside USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen as the top quarterback prospects in the 2018 draft class. Allen needs to take fewer risks, limit his turnovers and improve his efficiency this season, but he possesses the physical tools and upside that NFL scouts covet.
He stands 6-foot-5, weighs 230 pounds and delivers passes that arrive at their target as if shot out of a cannon. He also displays nimble feet, a knack for sensing danger in the pocket and the ability to throw accurately on the move, making him a threat to pass or run.
“His arm talent was evident right from the get-go, and that’s the hardest thing to coach,” Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “He was raw in every other way when he got here, but I think he has grown in all areas. He’s worked really hard to learn the position and to improve his body. That’s definitely a tribute to our guys in the weight room and his willingness to work hard.”
If Allen were to go No. 1 in next year’s draft, it would be the culmination of a stunning ascent. He wasn’t nicknamed “The Chosen One” in high school like Rosen. Nor did he have his pick of schools up and down the West Coast like Darnold.
In college football’s year of the quarterback, Allen is the outlier.
How does a quarterback with prototypical NFL size, arm strength and athleticism go overlooked by almost every Division I program in the country? It could only happen somewhere as far flung as Firebaugh, a town of 8,000 people separated from the nearest freeway by almost 20 miles of rolling farmland.
To say that Firebaugh isn’t known for football is an understatement. Before Allen’s stunning ascendance, the town’s high school had produced exactly one Division I football player in its history.
“Whenever people ask where we’re from, we always have to say Fresno,” Josh’s mother, LaVonne Allen, said. “Firebaugh is such a small town that unless you work in agriculture, you probably wouldn’t know it. It’s very much off the beaten path.”
College coaches also might have missed on Allen because he wasn’t part of the quarterback circuit that typically identifies California’s top prospects.
A multisport athlete in high school, Allen seldom had time to attend prestigious passing camps or work with private quarterback coaches. When he wasn’t honing his fastball, jump shot or seven-step drop, Allen often bused tables at his mother’s restaurant or helped out on the family farm by weeding fields, moving irrigation pipe or driving a tractor.
“Josh and his brother helped us any way they could,” LaVonne Allen said. “They could go out there and sweat with the best of them. If Joel asked them to get up early and get in the field by 6 a.m., they never argued and they never complained.”
At a time when many scholarship-hungry families encourage their kids to specialize in one sport or to transfer to the school that will provide the most exposure, the Allens resisted both trends. They spurned overtures from more prominent Central Valley programs after Allen’s breakout junior season and kept him at Firebaugh, living by the family mantra that “you bloom where you’re planted.”
While Joel and LaVonne Allen did send their son’s highlight clips to coaches at dozens of Division I schools, Josh’s physical attributes didn’t jump off the screen then the way they do now. He was 40 pounds lighter than his playing weight last season at Wyoming, a product of being among the youngest in his grade and not having much time to devote to packing on muscle in the weight room in between baseball, basketball and football seasons.
When every Division I coach Allen contacted either didn’t bother to respond or strung him along until a higher-priority target committed, a nearby junior college swooped in and took advantage. Reedley College offensive coordinator Ernie Rodriguez watched Allen throw for over 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns his senior season and emerged convinced he had unearthed a gem.
“He was putting up ungodly numbers and making some incredible throws, but he was getting no love,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t believe that nobody wanted him.”
Since there was a considerable gap between the modest competition Allen faced in high school and the more aggressive, sophisticated defenses he’d see at Reedley, Rodriguez gave his new quarterback time to adjust. Allen won the starting job before the fifth game of his freshman year and never relinquished it, throwing 25 touchdowns and 4 interceptions the rest of the season
Six straight strong performances rekindled Allen’s hope of receiving the Fresno State scholarship offer he had long craved, but the Bulldogs’ coaches once again preferred other quarterbacks from out of state. That opened the door for another Mountain West program to discover Allen and steal him away.
Among the coaches on Craig Bohl’s inaugural staff at Wyoming was Dave Brown, a former Fresno State assistant who was familiar with Allen. When Brown learned how much Allen had improved in a short time at Reedley, he urged Vigen to watch film of the quarterback and perhaps pay him a visit the week the Cowboys played at Fresno State in Nov. 2014.
“By no means was Josh perfect, but you could see that he had good size, athleticism and arm strength,” Vigen said. “Just based on his physical skill set alone, he was certainly worth digging into further.”
The more Vigen learned about Allen, the more his back story reminded him of a quarterback he had recruited four years earlier as offensive coordinator at North Dakota State — Philadelphia Eagles starter Carson Wentz. They both had all the physical gifts NFL scouts prize, yet they both grew up off the beaten path, played three sports, blossomed late and fell through the cracks.
For a program like Wyoming that can’t go toe-to-toe with power-five schools for established recruits, making sharp evaluations on players with quirky backgrounds is a requisite for success. Vigen and Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl visited with the Allen, his parents and coaches and emerged optimistic they had stumbled upon a raw yet fiercely motivated quarterback with the tools and character to one day become a difference maker.
When Bohl met with the Allens at their kitchen table in Dec. 2014, he not only offered a scholarship but also told them he wanted Josh to be the face of Wyoming football for the next three seasons. It was an emotional moment for a family that had waited a long time for a Division I coach to say those words.
“I’m trying to be a tough guy, but I was holding back the tears,” Joel Allen said. “My wife is over there bawling. You try so hard to get your son to be noticed and he gets rejected over and over. So to finally hear a coach say something like that, it was very exciting. You realize, ‘My son is going to be a Division I football player.'”
When Indiana ended its pursuit after offering another quarterback and interest from Memphis also fizzled, Allen knew it was time to make a decision. He dialed a coach at Fresno State and gave his dream school a final chance. The Bulldogs still weren’t ready to promise a scholarship, so Allen signed with Wyoming and never looked back.
Allen made his first start only two games into his first season at Wyoming after fellow quarterback Cameron Coffman suffered a knee injury the previous week. He was on his way toward taking advantage of his big break until he shattered his right clavicle after just 13 plays, a season-ending injury that both Allen and the Wyoming staff now view as a blessing in disguise.
The injury gave Allen time to master the intricacies of Wyoming’s pro-style offense and dedicate himself to weightlifting and speed and agility drills. By the start of Allen’s junior season, the quarterback with the golden arm also had the mental acuity to make the right reads, the strength to withstand punishing hits and legs that could keep plays alive.
Soon after Allen torched 13th-ranked Boise State for 275 yards and three touchdowns in an upset victory last October, his name began popping up out of nowhere on prominent mock drafts. The family that once pleaded with college coaches to take a look at their son suddenly had dozens of reporters, agents and financial planners ringing their phones or beating a path to their doorstep.
For the Allens, the sudden attention was exciting yet overwhelming. Joel and LaVonne knew playing in the NFL was their son’s dream, but they feared the timing wasn’t right.
On one hand, they conceded it was a gamble to pass up NFL riches in a sport when a career-threatening injury is only a single play away. On the other hand, they worried Josh wasn’t emotionally ready to command an NFL huddle at just 20 years old and with so little experience.
On one hand, they knew a lot of Wyoming’s talent at the skill positions was graduated or turning pro after last season. On the other hand, they felt Josh owed more to the coaching staff that took a chance on him, especially considering his junior season had ended with four losses in five games and a rally-killing interception in the final two minutes of the Poinsettia Bowl.
As the deadline to declare for the draft approached, Josh had decided that one year as Wyoming’s starting quarterback was enough preparation for the NFL and his parents were hesitant to try to talk him out of it. Then Vigen made a last-ditch phone call to Joel Allen and explained why he felt returning for another season was Josh’s best option.
When Joel Allen got off the phone and entered his son’s room, he found his son riddled with anxiety about his decision.
“I think you need to stay one more year, son” Joel said. “I don’t feel good about rushing into this.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” the younger Allen replied.
Coming back to school will give Allen the chance to properly prepare for the NFL and to demonstrate his gratitude to the program that finally gave him a chance.
“If I would have declared this past year, I may not have been ready,” Allen said. Coming back, seeing more defenses and improving my decision making is going to help me in the long run. And I also felt like I did owe these coaches something. They stuck their necks out for me when no one else did.”
In case solidifying himself as a high draft pick and spearheading Wyoming’s push for a league title isn’t enough motivation, Allen has one more incentive this season.
On Nov. 18 in Laramie, he’ll get his first crack at Fresno State. And just like that spring practice four years ago, he’ll be out to prove he’s the best quarterback on the field.
– – – – – – –