This story appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
Josh Allen holds a deck of cards facedown and shuffles. The Wyoming quarterback has mystified his Tennessee counterpart, Jarrett Guarantano, the way he mystified Mountain West Conference defenders last season, and Guarantano wants another chance to crack Allen's trick.
"One more time," Guarantano says.
"You sure?" Allen asks.
"You're not getting me again," Guarantano says.
The cards are a blur as Allen passes them from his left hand to his right. "Stop," Guarantano says. Allen lifts the stack in his right hand so only his audience can see the bottom card. It is a seven of spades. Allen waves the card in front of Guarantano. The 6'5", 235-pound 20-year-old flashes a Ferris-Bueller-breaking-the-fourth-wall smirk and says, "Seven of spades."
"How are you doing it?" Guarantano asks. Allen won't tell. His life is about to get picked apart by NFL scouts. This is one secret he can keep.
A few yards away, Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush, TCU's Kenny Hill and Indiana's Richard Lagow linger at the driving range of a swanky country club on a perfect March afternoon in San Diego, learning the finer points of the golf swing. The five quarterbacks are spending their spring breaks polishing their skills with private quarterback trainer George Whitfield. For the first half of the day, the QBs shuttle between the field and the classroom. They throw into rapidly closing windows in the end zone, and they take notes while former NFL offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye II draws seven-man protection schemes on a whiteboard. The golf lesson lets the players clear their heads and rest their bodies. Whitfield calls this event Shark Week, and Allen is about to become Jaws.
One month later Josh's parents, Joel and LaVonne, are at a wedding in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Between events, some friends head upstairs to change clothes. They return with news: "Your son is all over ESPN."
"Yeah, right," Joel says. Then his phone buzzes. In Laramie, Wyo., Josh's phone also buzzes.
In Philadelphia, ESPN has just wrapped its NFL draft coverage. Seconds before sign-off, reporter Adam Schefter passed along a prediction: "There was one personnel director who told me this weekend, 'You can put it in the books. Josh Allen will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next year.'" It's a bold prediction. Allen is a former zero-star recruit with one year of experience as a starter at the FBS level. And oh, yeah, USC, UCLA and Oklahoma State have star quarterbacks eligible to enter the 2018 draft while Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson returns for Louisville. What's going on?
None of this seemed remotely plausible when Allen played at Firebaugh (Calif.) High. As high schoolers, Hill, Wimbush and Guarantano worked their way through the Quarterback Industrial Complex—Elite 11 combines, multiple college camps, high-level seven-on-seven passing leagues—and became objects of desire for frenzied fans of many colleges. Their school choices were covered extensively. Allen? He could have played in Division III or in the NAIA, but he generated almost no interest from the upper divisions.
In part this was because Allen sprouted late, and even as a senior he was a string bean—6'4", 185 pounds—flinging passes all over California's Central Valley for a school that had produced exactly one FBS prospect in its history. Football players of consequence do not come from Firebaugh, a farm town of 8,300 that's 45 minutes northwest of Fresno. In 2013, Texas coach Tom Herman was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State. Joel contacted Herman because Herman's wife, Michelle, is from Firebaugh. Joel figured Herman might be the only coach who didn't work at Fresno State who was even aware of the place. Joel never heard back.
"We got a Subway a few years ago, and that was a big deal," says Firebaugh High baseball coach Alex Gutierrez, an alum who coached Allen and his younger brother, Jason. Recruiters may also have missed Allen because he had been too busy playing baseball and basketball and working on his dad's farm or at his mom's restaurant to dive into a recruiting circuit that identifies prospects at 14, makes them social media stars by 16 and persuades them to transfer by 20. Fresno State considered him for a walk-on spot, but that possibility evaporated when the Bulldogs took former Duke quarterback Brandon Connette as a graduate transfer. When Allen eventually chose Reedley (Calif.) College, a junior college 20 miles southeast of Fresno, barely anyone noticed.
But everyone is taking notice of Allen now. On Jan. 9, agents beat a path past the rows of cotton and cantaloupes on the family's 2,000-acre farm to sit in the Allens' living room. When Clemson beat Alabama for the national title, Josh watched the game with six representatives from mega-agency CAA. Though college players aren't allowed to sign with agents, they are allowed to take informational meetings. LaVonne served them pizza as the CAA reps broke down everything their company might do for Allen should he decide to turn pro. That night he decided his lone season as the starter at Wyoming was preparation enough. After one year at Reedley he had transferred to Wyoming, where in 2016 he threw for 3,203 yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, leading the Cowboys to the top of the Mountain Division in the Mountain West. He called some of his receivers and told them he'd break the news to Cowboys coach Craig Bohl in the morning. "As soon as I made that decision, anxiety started running through my body," Allen says. "I didn't sleep one ounce, one bit, one hour, one second that night."
It was all happening so fast. Only months earlier had Allen become the full-time starter for Bohl and offensive coordinator Brent Vigen. The pair had recruited and developed Carson Wentz at North Dakota State before decamping for Laramie after the 2013 season. NFL personnel people look at Allen's size and speed and his ability to flick his wrist and make a football soar and wonder whether Allen might be another Wentz—who started 16 games as a rookie with the Eagles in '16. Vigen sees similarities between the paths Wentz and Allen took, but he also saw a rawness in Allen that could be refined with one more season in Wyoming, where the offense, like the one Vigen ran at North Dakota State, looks like an NFL offense.
Vigen told Josh he thought he could benefit from another year in school after the Cowboys' 24–21 Poinsettia Bowl loss to BYU on Dec. 21, but the buzz had already begun. Shortly after the season ended, a text popped up on Vigen's phone: "Is your guy ready for the league?" It was from Wentz. Vigen made a plea to Allen's father in a call on the morning of Jan. 10. He was driving from Laramie to the Denver airport for a recruiting trip to Wisconsin and was so preoccupied with Allen's potential departure that he had forgotten his coat. Joel agreed with Vigen but told him that he would support Josh in whatever he decided. After the call Joel went to Josh's bedroom; Vigen had just called him. Josh declined the call and looked at his dad. "You talked to Coach Vigen, didn't you?" Josh said. The anxiety of the night before came spilling out, and Josh found himself agreeing with his father and Vigen. He called Bohl and delivered the news. "I love you, Josh," Bohl said. When Vigen landed in chilly Madison, his phone lit up. "I didn't have a coat," he says, "but we had a quarterback, so I was O.K. with it."
Allen’s contemporaries in the high school class of 2014 were noticed early. Deshaun Watson, who would lead Clemson to a national title and go No. 12 to the Texans in last month's draft, committed to the Tigers as a sophomore at Gainesville (Ga.) High. When Allen was a high school sophomore, he was 5'10" and weighed 145 pounds. Gutierrez, who was also the quarterbacks coach, called Allen tortuga, Spanish for "tortoise," after watching him plod around the bases. Allen hit 6'3" as a junior and grew an inch taller as a senior, but no matter how much he lifted, he couldn't pack muscle onto his frame. This didn't make him soft, though. Firebaugh football coach Bill Magnusson used to make Josh hit the blocking sled with his linemen. People would ask, Aren't you worried you'll hurt your QB? "No," Magnusson would reply. "I'm worried about him not being a prima donna."
Allen got quicker and learned to evade pass rushers, but no one would have called him fast. He threw for 3,061 yards as a senior, but he'd only attended a few camps. Instead, he played baseball and basketball in a gym named after his grandfather. When Joel needed cotton chopped or irrigation pipe moved in the cantaloupe fields, Josh and Jason joined the farm's employees. (Josh still has nightmares about busting open a beehive while moving pipe on a 105° day.) Josh also served as an occasional busboy at The Farmer's Daughter, the restaurant LaVonne ran until earlier this year. "I ate more than I bused," says Josh.
Like Allen, Wentz had been a late bloomer. As a freshman at Century High in Bismarck, N.D., Wentz stood 5'8" and weighed 125 pounds. He grew to 6'5" as a senior. An injury forced Wentz to play receiver, linebacker and safety as a junior, when his recruitment as a quarterback should have peaked. Like Allen, Wentz didn't play only football. In fact, his work as the glue guy on Century's state-champion basketball team as a senior helped pique the interest of North Dakota State's football coaches. His experiences with Wentz and Allen have reinforced Bohl's disdain for the quarterback-recruiting machine. "For all the dads out there who think they've got to shop their kids around from ninth grade on," Bohl says, "I think they're doing a disservice."
Because neither Wentz nor Allen took the usual path, Vigen had to take a leap of faith with each. Most coaches prefer to see QBs throw in person, but since North Dakota State didn't offer Wentz until late in the process, the first time Vigen saw Wentz throw was at Wentz's first practice with the Bison. Vigen didn't learn about Allen until late in the 2014 season, when Cowboys assistant David Brown, who had gone to Reedley to watch another player, suggested Vigen take a peek at some video. Vigen didn't see Allen play in person, but he liked what he saw online. When Vigen finally saw the real thing, during Allen's first practice with the Cowboys, he knew he'd found something special.
On Nov. 16, 2012, then Reedley offensive coordinator Ernie Rodriguez attended the Firebaugh-Lindsay game. Lindsay crushed Firebaugh 41–10, but one of Allen's throws down the right sideline drew Rodriguez's eye. He saw Allen three times in '13, and each viewing further convinced him that he'd unearthed a gem. After an eight-hour recruiting pitch from Rodriguez, Josh bought in—junior college ball was his best chance to get noticed by a Division I program. Shortly after Allen began practicing at Reedley, he took a snap on the right hash mark and saw a receiver flash open to his left. "Here comes a laser," Rodriguez said as he stood with his receivers coach. Then Allen threw. In unison, both coaches said, "Oh, s---."
Rodriguez now calls those "typical Josh Allen throws."
By the time Allen reached Wyoming, his legs had caught up to his arm. During spring practice in 2015, he outran a safety. "I talked so much trash," Allen says. "I showed him the film three or four times a day for a week." The tortuga had wheels. Allen got his first chance to play when starter Cameron Coffman suffered a knee injury in a season-opening loss to North Dakota. The following week Allen took the field against Eastern Michigan—the only other school to offer him a scholarship out of Reedley. Allen's big chance lasted 13 plays, ending when he shattered his collarbone during a 24-yard run midway through the first quarter. "I didn't slide," Allen says. "[The bone] broke in about seven spots."
Allen, his parents and his coaches all call the injury a blessing—and not only because he spent some of his recovery time mastering card tricks he learned on YouTube. Those 13 plays had proved to Josh that he was Wyoming's best quarterback. He knew he'd be the starter in 2016 if he dedicated himself to mastering the offense and making the final adjustments to his body. Vigen watched as his quarterback transformed himself from an out-of-shape 215 to a solid 235. When Allen returned to the field, he used those legs to keep plays alive to give him time and space to throw.
In Wyoming's 30–28 win against Boise State last season, Allen felt the rush coming on a third-and-13 play and stepped up in the pocket. When it collapsed on him, he ran backward and then rolled right. Before he reached the sideline, he arced the ball over a defender's head and into the hands of leaping senior receiver Tanner Gentry for a 27-yard touchdown. On his next play he threaded the ball between two defenders to another senior receiver, Jake Maulhardt, for a two-point conversion to tie the score at 28 with 6:42 remaining.
Still, there are times when Allen relies too much on his legs and his arm to bail himself out. Bohl and Vigen spent the spring reminding him that he can't go wrong hitting his check downs. The "Oh, s---" throws can wait until the Cowboys need real magic. And taking fewer chances should raise Allen's completion percentage, which will help make him that top pick.
That's why Allen came back. He knows he can succeed at the next level if he allows himself to prepare properly. "I want to have a career in the NFL," he says. "It's not going anywhere. It's going to be there next year and the year after that. I don't want to be a guy that's in the league for three years and bounces around backup to backup to backup. I want to be a guy that a franchise can say, 'We want this kid. We're going to take him now, and he's going to be our future for the next 15 to 20 years.'"
This time next year some team will pick Allen's card. They'll be holding an ace.