LARAMIE, Wyo. — The stands of War Memorial Stadium are mostly empty as Josh Allen makes his way toward midfield, ball in hand.
Allen is wearing a T-shirt, brown baggy basketball shorts and headphones. Wyoming’s game against Oregon is still about 90 minutes away, but the show is about to start. Representatives from 16 NFL teams are gathered on the sideline to see one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in the country, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s big, but nimble, and the ball explodes from his hand effortlessly.
He looks like a natural, only there’s a problem.
This will end up being the best part of Allen’s day. During the game, he took a beating and completed just six passes.
Allen is a fascinating case study of the NFL evaluation process. He is a rare physical talent, but his teammates have been overmatched by top-notch competition. As a result, so has he. While some fans look at Allen’s underwhelming stats against Power Five competition and proclaim: ‘OV-ER-RA-TED!’ scouts are digging deeper. A player’s draft stock does rise and fall from week to week. In the long run, how Allen deals with failure could be more valuable to him than if he had thrown four touchdown passes against the Ducks.
“Everything is not black and white,” former NFL general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian said. “What goes on this season is important. You’re going to want to watch the tape. You’re going to want to watch his team live. You’re going to want to see how he handles adversity. You want to see how he performs with a lesser team around him than he had last year.
“All of that is part of the equation.”
When it comes to dealing with adversity, Allen has already overcome so much. He was a zero-star high schooler who grew up on his parents’ ranch in Firebaugh, California, about 40 miles northeast of Fresno. He was not a product of the quarterback industrial complex. He did not receive hours of private coaching as a teenager or play seven-on-seven tournaments year-round.
“I would say this is a benefit to him because he’s emerged as a legitimate candidate without all the bells and whistles that are attached to all of the formal training that goes on now with these quarterbacks,” said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who is executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Allen played baseball and basketball in high school. He also swam, and learned karate as a kid. He worked on the ranch, attending to the cantaloupe, wheat and cotton. From that he learned “you don’t want to do it for the rest of your life.”
He landed at Reedley College, a junior college in central California, and there the long, lanky kid began to fill out. Wyoming coach Craig Bohl and offensive coordinator Brent Vigen — who at FCS power North Dakota State developed Carson Wentz from a no-star to the second-overall NFL draft pick — came across Allen while looking into a lineman at Reedley.
As Allen grew to 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, the buzz started. His first chance to impress on a big stage was at Nebraska last season, and he threw five interceptions. He went on to help the Cowboys reach the Mountain West championship game. He considered entering the NFL draft last season, but stayed after being advised he would benefit from another year of development, gaining a better understanding of what it takes to play quarterback at the highest level.
“I think his ability to understand the game, understand preparation, attention to detail. Really, truly, being consumed by that part of it is still a work in progress,” Vigen said. “I think that’s part of his maturity and part of the reason his coming back will be so beneficial to him.”
The team Allen returned to, though, is depleted. Star running back Brian Hill was drafted in the fifth round by the Falcons, and center Chase Roullier was a sixth-round pick by the Redskins. The Cowboys’ three leading receivers from 2016 are gone. Both wide receiver Tanner Gentry and tight end Jacob Hollister made NFL rosters out of training camp.
But because of Allen, who had been hyped as a possible first-round draft pick all summer, expectations for the Cowboys were still high. Reality set in when Wyoming was beaten 24-3 in the opener at Iowa and Allen threw for 174 yards and two interceptions.
“Of course it would have helped him (to play well against Iowa), but I didn’t expect that,” said former NFL scout Chris Landry of LandryFootball.com. “Those ends at Iowa really just torched (Wyoming).”
Still, there were moments when Allen’s gifts were on display.
“Third down, rips an absolute freakin’ dime on a rope 45 yards, hits the guy on the facemask. Incomplete,” said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who works with the Elite 11 quarterback competition for top high school prospects.
Then came Oregon last weekend, and it got even worse. The Ducks were all over Allen and he went 6 for 24 for 64 yards with an interception and two fumbles in the 49-13 loss.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said watching the Oregon film, he counted five dropped passes in Wyoming’s first 26 plays.
“He’s getting pressured, not every time, but just about I’d say 70 percent of his drop backs, he’s either getting pressure early — before 2 1/2 seconds — or his receivers aren’t separating so he’s forced to hold the ball and move and avoid pressure and then try to reset and throw. Or throw on the run while a defender is closing in on him,” McShay said. “What are you supposed to do?”
Well, first off, Allen deleted Twitter from his phone after the Oregon game.
“Those guys on Twitter aren’t making draft picks and putting together teams in the NFL,” he said. “All I really care about is respect from my teammates and my coaches here.”
What Allen also did was try not to show frustration on the sideline and to keep encouraging his teammates. On the Monday after facing Oregon, he acknowledged it was a rocky day, vowed to play better and expressed confidence that the team will improve.
“We have a saying in our family,” Josh’s father, Joel Allen, said. “It’s APO. Adjust. Persevere. Overcome. And apply that to just about everything you do.”
The quarterback class for the next NFL draft has a chance to be exceptionally strong, with UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold likely to enter. Dilfer said that could be to Allen’s benefit.
“We have over-drafted quarterbacks the last few years,” Dilfer said.
Evaluators generally agree that Allen is physically ahead of Wentz, who blew away NFL executives with his competitive character, leadership skills and willingness and capacity to learn.
Those traits usually make or break quarterbacks in the NFL. That part of evaluating Allen is incomplete, but will have a far greater effect on where he will be drafted than his stats against Oregon. Faking those traits is more difficult when times are tough.
“And I hope people see that I’m going to be battle-tested,” Allen said “I’m going to be put through the ringer. Mentally, physically, whatever the case may be, it’s going to make me a better quarterback.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP