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Josh Allen: Why draft's most intriguing QB prospect might also be the best

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This past fall, NFL.com went Back 2 Campus to tell the incredible stories of some of college football's brightest stars, profiling the players before they become household names. This is the 15th in a daily series leading up the scouting combine, where these players will gather and compete for their standing in the 2018 NFL Draft.

After all the praying, all the worrying and the constant dread of what might happen next in a whirlwind year, LaVonne Allen walked into the bedroom of her second-oldest child just over a year ago and waited for some reassuring news. It was there that she found her son, Josh, sitting in the dark, calmly reconsidering the most important decision of his life. Only two nights earlier, the Wyoming quarterback had told his family he was leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. He had delivered the news while surrounded by loved ones inside a Mexican restaurant near his hometown of Firebaugh, Calif., giddily dreaming about a bright future while his mother instinctively hid her concern.

Josh and his parents already had watched the College Football Playoff National Championship with high-profile agent Tom Condon sitting in their living room, a move that suggested how close Josh was to finding representation, as well as how high his stock had soared. Allen also had packed his bags for a trip to San Diego, where he would train with other draft prospects, including North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky and Iowa's C.J. Beathard, before attending the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The more LaVonne watched all this unfold, the more she felt a haunting sensation gnawing at her soul. She kept telling herself this was all happening way too fast -- Josh had only spent one full year as the Cowboys' starter -- and she questioned if her son might pay a hefty price in the end.

That all changed the moment LaVonne ducked her head into that darkened room.

She knew that Josh, always regarded for his confidence and coolness, couldn't bring himself to break the news to Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen when the two had talked on the phone. There also was the fact that LaVonne and her husband, Joel, had raised Josh to be a man of his word and to reward loyalty. Wyoming had been the only FBS school to offer him a full scholarship. You'd better believe that meant plenty in their minds, as well.

When Josh turned to face his mother, she sensed all these factors were weighing on what would ultimately be her son's change of heart. She asked if he was OK with staying in school, and Josh nodded before saying, "I can't do this without you and dad. We're in this together." That's when something happened that, to this day, LaVonne knows was the most important sign in that entire process. For all the alleviation she experienced, she saw even more coming from a 20-year-old who was being touted as an elite quarterback prospect -- a potential first-round draft pick -- despite his lack of experience.

"When Josh said he was staying in school, you could feel the relief coming off him," LaVonne said. "At that point, you could see he was a kid again."

The upcoming draft, by most people's measure, will be defined by quarterbacks. There's the last two Heisman Trophy winners (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Louisville's Lamar Jackson), a pair of dart-throwers from Los Angeles (UCLA's Josh Rosen and USC's Sam Darnold), and an assortment of All-America types (Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Washington State's Luke Falk and Western Kentucky's Mike White). Even with all that star power, Allen might be the most intriguing NFL prospect of the bunch. He was the late bloomer who came from nowhere, the one who led a program that has rarely risen to national prominence and living a dream that could end with him being some team's franchise quarterback.

It would've been easy for Allen, who turns 22 in May, to enter last year's draft because the buzz was building so quickly. Instead, he chose the more mature route, one he hopes pays even bigger dividends in a few months.

It's not difficult to see what scouts like about him. At 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, he has a cannon for a right arm, impressive mobility and an attractive blend of intelligence, resilience and guts. Add in the fact he's been forced to fight for every last bit of respect he's received and there's a chip-on-the-shoulder dimension that will help him at the next level, as well. If you think that doesn't matter, just consider what being overlooked did for Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

In 2016, Allen threw for 3,203 yards with 28 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. He also led Wyoming, a team that was picked to finish last in the Mountain West's Mountain Division, to an 8-6 record, a spot in the conference championship game and a berth in the school's first bowl game in five years. Last season, he led the Cowboys to an 8-5 record and a win over Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. However, his numbers were down.; he threw for 1,812 yards with 16 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

"I watched him when he was considering coming out," one NFL personnel director said before Wyoming kicked off its season vs. Iowa. "He's a talented passer with an elite arm, good size, toughness and competitiveness. But he also showed poor ball security, inconsistent mechanics and he needed to improve his accuracy. I didn't think he was ready."

Allen wanted to enjoy another successful season, but he also returned to school because of his faith in the preparation he would receive. After all, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl once discovered a raw, overlooked quarterback named Carson Wentz while at North Dakota State. Wentz, of course, became the second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. The Eagles QB already has informed Allen about the benefits of his college offense -- "He told me it really trains you to be a quarterback in the NFL," Allen said -- and the Wyoming signal-caller is smart enough to see the success Wentz has enjoyed in Philadelphia. Unlike the spread systems that proliferate college football and ease the burdens on young field generals, the Cowboys' offense asks the quarterback to handle protection calls, checks at the line of scrimmage and other adjustments.

The lack of support around him could be a big reason Allen's numbers took a hit last season. He led a younger offense that lost some productive starters, particularly running back Brian Hill (drafted by Atlanta in the fifth round last year) and wide receiver Tanner Gentry (undrafted free agent signed by Chicago).

"The best decision Josh has made in his life was to return to Wyoming," said George Whitfield, the noted quarterback guru who has trained current pros like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston -- and who worked with Allen last summer. "Understanding an offense is big because you can't run an NFL offense if you don't have ownership of your college system. ... Believe me when I say that there hasn't been a talent like this come out of college football since Cam Newton. I try to be conservative in my thoughts about Josh, but that's the truth."

The most common question Allen has answered more than any other is an obvious one: How come so many people missed on him? It's not like he didn't have talent, ambition or heart. As Joel Allen said, "From the time he was little, everything he did was impressive. I don't care if he was playing soccer or baseball or doing something with the swim team -- he was determined to be the best."

When Josh was 6 years old, he had to swim a 25-meter final in a local meet against a kid who was three times his size. Guess what? He kicked his butt. Playing on a youth football team that would win just once, he was sacked nine times in a single game. How did he respond? By getting up after every play, readjusting himself and doing his best to keep making smart decisions and tough throws.

Bill Magnusson, Allen's coach at Firebaugh High, watched Josh that day and pulled him aside afterwards. Magnusson promised the diminutive eighth-grader things would improve at the high school level, that the offensive line would be better, as would the skill players and the coaching. Magnusson saw a kid with a big heart and plenty of potential. Unfortunately for Allen, nobody outside of that town had the same kind of vision.

Allen did become a local star in Firebaugh, an agricultural community of roughly 7,500 people located 40 miles from Fresno. He was a standout quarterback, the leading scorer on the basketball team, a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball and a stellar student who served as the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Most athletes with that list of accomplishments can find at least one school interested in paying for their education. After throwing for 5,269 yards and 59 touchdowns in his final two years, the only thing Allen kept hearing from college recruiters was that, at 6-2 and 180 pounds, he wasn't big enough.

Even when he went to Fresno State on an informal visit prior to his senior year, the response he received was deflating.

"We needed a quarterback to replace Derek Carr at the time," said former Fresno State assistant coach David Brown II, who now works as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M-Kingsville. "And our head coach (Tim DeRuyter) liked everything about Josh except his stature."

It also didn't help that Allen played in relative obscurity. Firebaugh is a Division 5 school in the Central Valley of California, which makes it one of the tiniest programs in the state. LaVonne and Joel did their best to create some exposure for Josh -- by arranging sessions with personal trainers and taking him to various football camps around the state -- but nothing mattered. College coaches simply couldn't see the potential in a skinny kid with a live arm and enough generosity of spirit that he often drove teammates to summer drills in 100-degree heat.

"I kept telling people that he may not have hair on his face at 18 years old," Magnusson said. "But if you have a little bit of vision, then you'll like what you'll see when he's 20."

Added Allen: "That was tough. I had to decide if I was going to try a junior college or walk on somewhere. I even thought about changing sports. But I eventually decided that football was my passion."

In time, Allen reached the point where attending a junior college made the most sense. The Fresno State coaches actually encouraged him to go that route to improve his size and skills. A year later -- after throwing for 2,055 yards and 26 touchdown passes at nearby Reedley College -- Allen had done just that. A late growth spurt pushed his height to 6-5 and his weight had jumped to around 215 pounds.

As fate would have it, Wyoming also was playing at Fresno State that 2014 season, and Brown -- who had joined the Cowboys staff under Bohl -- was recruiting the area before the game. When Brown went to Reedley College looking for defensive end prospects, a coach told him to check out Allen.

"I thought he had walked on somewhere (at an FBS school)," said Brown, who joined the Wyoming staff before Allen decided to go to junior college. "When I saw him again, he was three inches taller, had put on more weight and he had that big arm. At that point, there was definitely a place for him in the Mountain West."

Bohl spoke to Josh and his parents inside their Firebaugh home in December 2014. He was the only college head coach to ever visit their house and they had pulled Josh's two younger siblings (the Allens have four children) out of school early to be ready for the occasion. Joel and LaVonne wanted Bohl to see exactly the kind of family Josh came from, just to sweeten the appeal. When Bohl told them how he envisioned Josh as the face of his program at Wyoming, it seemed as if everything had fallen into place.

Josh being Josh, he played it cool. LaVonne wept instantly. Joel, on the other hand, was yawning occasionally, until LaVonne confronted him later; he admitted to trying to hold back his own tears. "When Coach Bohl was in my living room, he was really sincere and straight to the point," Josh said. "He was adamant about turning around the program and he wanted me to a be a big part of that. He said they had gone everywhere looking for a quarterback and he told them (Josh's parents), 'We want your son.' "

"I could feel the value system in that house when I walked in there," Bohl said. "It was the All-American story. Here's a farm kid with a mom and dad working hard and a close-knit family. When you looked in Josh's eyes, and considered everything he had gone through, you saw greatness."

Allen opened his first year at Wyoming as the backup to Cameron Coffman in 2015. He started the Cowboys' second game that year after Coffman sustained a knee injury in the season opener. It appeared destiny was finally working in Allen's favor, given how long he'd waited for such an opportunity. That was before the 13th offensive play of that game against Eastern Michigan, when a defender tackled him at the end of a 24-yard run and snapped his collarbone in seven places.

Allen was devastated by the injury -- "I didn't leave my dorm room for two weeks," he said -- but there was a silver lining in the setback. Once he got over his disappointment, he used his spare time to study the Cowboys offense on video. He went through mental reps while watching practice and he hit the weight room relentlessly. By the start of the 2016 season, he was tipping the scales at 233 pounds and telling all his teammates to prepare for a run at a conference championship.

Bohl already had seen something special in Allen, but the QB showed even more talent when he returned from the injury. "I wasn't just seeing the ball when he let it go," Bohl said. "I could hear it coming out of his hand." That arm strength was on display when Allen threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns during a 30-28 win over Boise State in 2016. Along with leading Wyoming back from a 21-7 deficit, he produced what has become the signature moment of his career: a 27-yard touchdown pass to Gentry that tied the score at 28 in the fourth quarter, resulting from Allen scrambling out of the pocket, evading two defenders and rifling the ball 45 yards in the air to his receiver in the back of the end zone.

That victory was the first Wyoming had ever enjoyed over Boise State in 11 tries. It also unleashed a celebration that ended with Cowboys fans rushing the field and ushering in the very change in culture that Bohl had wanted Allen to lead. In the midst of the chaos, Allen pushed through the crowd to find LaVonne still filming the mayhem from the stands. He called for her to join him and she somehow forced her way toward her son.

After that point, everything began to change for Allen. "People would come up to us and ask if he was coming back to school," LaVonne said. "At first, we were thinking to ourselves, 'Why wouldn't he?' But after about the eighth and ninth games of the season, we got it. It was like a wildfire."

As hard as it was for Allen's parents to handle the onslaught of agents and financial advisors, it was just as critical for Josh to make sense of what he wanted. There already was another quarterback entering the draft after only one season of action, Trubisky, whom analysts were touting as a lock for the first round (the Chicago Bears ultimately selected him second overall). If scouts weren't that concerned about Trubisky's level of experience, then they probably wouldn't have held Allen's against him, either. On top of all that, Allen had dreamed about being an NFL quarterback since the moment he first picked up a football.

What ultimately kept him in school was the realization there was still more work to do in college. Vigen specifically mentioned Wyoming's second game of the 2016 season -- a 52-17 loss at Nebraska that included six turnovers by Allen, including five interceptions -- as an example of where his quarterback could improve.

"He learned some hard lessons that day," Vigen said. "We were down seven going into the fourth quarter and he really imploded. He learned that he can't do it all by himself. There are no 14-point plays out there."

Allen also gained plenty of comfort in knowing there was more time to make all these important life choices. His family had a better feel about choosing an agent this time around, vetting financial advisors and going through interviews with reporters. The time Allen spent with Whitfield was also beneficial, as were the chats he's had with Wentz.

Today, Josh Allen and Darnold are roommates in San Clemente, Calif., where they are training with former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer. He has an entire state following his every move, as well as several QB-needy teams who are trying to figure out if he is truly a transcendent player. He relishes the responsibility that comes with that, along with what it could mean in two months at the draft.

"I've talked to a lot of different people," said Allen, whose performance at the Senior Bowl (9-of-13 for 158 yards and two TDs) in January started to alleviate some concerns scouts had about his accuracy and touch, and confirmed his rocket arm. "And I came to the conclusion that if I want to have a 15-year playing career (in the NFL), I need to do everything possible to prepare for that."

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