As the rain continued to pour on Qualcomm Stadium and Wyoming’s 2016 season came to a soggy, disappointing end, Wyoming fans’ attention turned to whether their star third-year scoring machine would be returning to the Cowboys or headed to the NFL, as rumors had suggested.
Meaning, of course, Brian Hill.
The prospect of Wyoming’s all-time leading rusher leaving Laramie with a season of eligibility remaining had lingered for months at that point. He had proven just about everything there was to prove in brown and gold, and whatever appeal there was of returning to Laramie was probably not going to merit taking another 300 handoffs — especially given the short shelf life of NFL running backs.
So, few were shocked when Hill announced the day after Christmas he would be entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
Then, a day after the calendar flipped, Wyoming fans began to fear Hill wouldn’t be the only player they were losing early. As a redshirt sophomore, Josh Allen was eligible, but not much credence had been given to the idea of the quarterback departing less than a year after having to earn a starting job at a Mountain West school coming off a last-place finish.
Matt Miller changed that. On Jan. 2, the Bleacher Report NFL Draft lead writer published his “Final Regular-Season Projections.” With the first selection, he predicted the Cleveland Browns would draft Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. With the second selection, he predicted the San Francisco 49ers would select North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
And with the third pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select Josh Allen, quarterback, Wyoming.
Those words were not spoken in April by Roger Goodell, but that was the prediction in Miller’s mock draft that changed Allen’s life all the same.
“This may be a dumb question,” one reader tweeted in response to Miller’s article. “Who is Josh Allen?”
It was a valid question for most football fans outside the Mountain West. It wouldn’t be for long.
“This is what I’m hearing today,” Miller told the Star-Tribune the day his mock draft was published, “and that could all change tomorrow. It’s kind of a snapshot in time, especially when you’re doing one on, like, January 2.”
The draft might have been months away, but Allen’s decision wasn’t. Underclassmen had until Jan. 16 to declare for the draft. And while Miller’s mock draft set off a chain reaction in the public eye, Allen was experiencing a chaotic time of his own.
Allen had initially gotten the sense that he might have the option to leave after his sophomore year around the time of Wyoming’s Mountain West Football Championship game against San Diego State. But the mock draft intensified everything.
Much like Allen’s process of transitioning from Reedley to Wyoming, things moved fast. Unlike that process, he was a much hotter commodity this time around. He watched the national championship game between Clemson and Alabama with four CAA agents in his home in Firebaugh. The sense around town was that the pride of Firebaugh was leaning toward leaving.
“It was a hectic two and a half weeks for me,” Allen said. “Hard to sleep. I know my parents weren’t sleeping very well.”
His toughest night of sleep came after a family dinner at Wool Growers, a Basque restaurant in Los Banos, California, the day after Clemson’s win. Allen had announced his decision to leave for the NFL at that dinner. (He ordered the rib eye.)
They had toasted to it. Allen had packed his things for San Diego, where he was going to train for the draft.
But he couldn’t sleep.
The next morning, Allen received a call from Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen. He declined the call. On Jan. 11, Allen confirmed the news Wyoming fans were dying to hear. He was staying in Laramie.
While Allen spent 2016 emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West, Carson Wentz was making his name as an NFL rookie quarterback. Like Allen, Wentz had been recruited and coached by Craig Bohl and Vigen, when their staff was still at North Dakota State. Also like Allen, Wentz was a draft prospect without a Power Five school beside his name.
Allen spoke to Wentz on the phone while making his decision about the NFL. Wentz, now an MVP candidate with the Philadelphia Eagles, painted a picture of what it’s like to be a professional quarterback.
“You’re 20 years old,” Wentz told Allen. “You’re stepping into a locker room with 30- to 35-year-old dudes that have kids and wives and they’re counting on you to make plays and win games. If you’re not ready for that, it’ll eat you up.”
That resonated with Allen.
“He was very sincere,” Allen said, “very real about it.”
Allen’s rise might have seemed meteoric, and Miller’s initial mock draft raised some eyebrows. But the interest was real.
“That buzz is alive and well within NFL circles,” Fox NFL broadcaster and NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said shortly before the draft. “Many people have said to me, ‘Boy, if he’d been in this draft, we’d be talking about maybe one of the top three guys in this year’s draft.’ Yeah, the buzz is already there for him, and people are really excited about watching him progress next year.
“I heard a ton of buzz about him at the combine, and obviously he wasn’t in it, but it was still like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to take a look at that big kid from Wyoming next year. That’s going to be fun.’”
Allen watched as two of his former teammates, Hill and center Chase Roullier, were drafted. While they receive NFL paychecks, Allen spends Monday through Thursday mornings in Spanish class.
As Miller predicted, Allen did end up in a Bears jersey, but he had to buy it himself. Tanner Gentry, Allen’s go-to target at Wyoming, was signed by Chicago as an undrafted free agent, and Allen customized his own Gentry jersey online as soon as he could.
“I was very close to being an NFL player, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do growing up,” Allen said. “At the same time, you’re thinking about what you want to do for the rest of your life or the next 15, 20 years, and being ready. Sometimes they don’t gel and people make the decision to go early and they don’t end up in the league for more than four years. I looked upon that and said, ‘I want to have a 15-year career in the NFL, and to come back for one more year is not going to hurt my chances.’”
For better or worse, Allen will have another decision to make at the next turn of the calendar. From the way it has been discussed, not much detective work is required to see how it might go.
“At least I’ve got a little better sense of what’s going to happen and who to talk to and who to trust,” Allen said after returning to Wyoming in January. “But that’s kind of out of the focus right now. I’m ready for this next season.”
This time, he won’t be sneaking up on anyone.