The NFL draft darling who couldn't get a college scholarship

Allen battling back for Idaho Potato Bowl (1:12)

Todd McShay discusses Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen's difficult final season and how the top draft prospect's skill set is unlike that of anyone else in the draft. (1:12)

Editor's note: This story originally ran in the preseason. It has been updated.

LARAMIE, Wyo. -- On Nov. 20, 2014, near the end of Josh Allen's first season at junior college, he sent emails imploring someone -- anyone, really -- to give him a chance to be a Division I quarterback.

The recipient list included not only every FBS head coach, but also every offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and position coach from Alabama to Washington, more than 1,000 emails in total. They started with the same salutation and the same desperate plea from a kid in tiny Firebaugh, California: I want to be your quarterback.

His unsolicited emails went over like a loan request from a Nigerian prince. He received a handful of responses and only two -- Eastern Michigan and Wyoming -- eventually offered him a scholarship. (The Eagles actually withdrew their offer after he chose to visit Wyoming near the end of the early signing period for junior college transfers.)

"Yeah, I was disappointed," Allen said. "I couldn't believe it."

On the bright side, it was one more scholarship offer than Allen had coming out of Firebaugh High School the year before, when not a single FBS or FCS program called.

"I truly felt like I was a Division I quarterback, and I'd felt that way for a long time," Allen said. "I just wanted other people to see it."

No one else saw it, at least not back then. But after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns for Wyoming last season, the quarterback that nearly every FBS team (but two) ignored might very well end up being one of the first players selected in the 2018 NFL draft.

Allen's anonymity ended almost immediately after the final selection of the 2017 NFL draft was made on April 29, when ESPN reporter Adam Schefter said: "There was one personnel director who told me this week that you can put in the books, Josh Allen will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next year."

Of course, most of the people watching ESPN's draft coverage that day probably wondered: Who in the hell is Josh Allen?

"Probably 90 percent of America," Allen admitted. "That's kind of been my M.O. my entire football career."

There's only one stoplight in Firebaugh, California, a farming town of about 7,500 residents in California's Central Valley, about 40 miles west of Fresno. Originally known as Firebaugh's Ferry, it was an outpost on the San Joaquin River during the California gold rush during the mid-19th century.

According to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos make up more than 90 percent of the town's population, many of them migrant workers employed in agriculture.

"It's a small town, everybody knows everybody and news travels fast," said Allen. "It was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything because it kind of shaped who I am today."

Thousands of acres of alfalfa, pistachios and almond groves line the road to the ranch where Allen grew up. Joel Allen, Josh's father, and his uncle, Todd Allen, grow about 3,000 acres of Pima cotton, cantaloupes and wheat against the backdrop of a coastal mountain range. Joel and Todd Allen are third-generation farmers.

Josh's great-grandfather Arvid "Swede" Allen arrived at Ellis Island from Sweden in 1907 and settled in Firebaugh during the Great Depression. Josh's grandfather A.E. "Buzz" Allen established the family farm in 1975 and was also a local school board member and civic leader (the high school gymnasium is named in his honor).

"Josh would be fourth-generation," Joel Allen said. "But I don't think he's coming back to the farm."

Joel and his wife, LaVonne, raised their four children on the ranch, and Josh, his younger brother Jason and sisters Nicala and Makenna were involved in sports at an early age. There is a basketball goal, swimming pool and batting cage at the ranch, and Josh grew up playing nearly every sport, including baseball, basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, karate and swimming. He and his brother, who plays first base at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, also helped their father and uncle on the farm.

"It instilled a work ethic," Josh said. "Seeing my dad wake up super early when the sun wasn't even out and then coming home when the sun was set, he worked his tail off to provide for our family and did a great job. He's the most selfless man I know, and I think if I'm half the man he is, I'll be all right in this world."

Josh learned quite a bit about hard work from his mother, too. Until recently, LaVonne owned one of the few restaurants in town -- aptly named The Farmer's Daughter -- and fed farmers every morning before they went to work.

"She's the rock of our family," Josh said.

Josh grew up a Fresno State football fan and tailgated with his parents and siblings at most home games. He attended the Bulldogs' summer camps and even retrieved the kicking tee during a few games (former coach Pat Hill once yelled at him to get off the field). One of Josh's most memorable moments was meeting Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, another homegrown star, who now plays for the Oakland Raiders.

In February 2014, when it was time for Josh to choose a college as a high school senior, the Bulldogs -- and every other FBS team -- weren't interested. At the time, Josh was about 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds. He hadn't attended the elite quarterback camps and wasn't a widely known prospect. His high school team didn't participate in many 7-on-7 camps because Josh and many of his teammates were busy playing baseball and other sports. He was the leading scorer on his basketball team and also pitched on the baseball team, reaching 90 mph with his fastball.

It wasn't like Josh wasn't trying to get coaches' attention, though, especially those working at Fresno State. When his father played in a charity golf tournament with then-Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter, he told him about Josh's desire to play for him. But DeRuyter decided Josh wasn't the right fit. San Diego State offered Josh a chance to join the team as a walk-on, but coach Rocky Long couldn't promise playing time. Left without a major college scholarship, Allen enrolled at Reedley College, about 65 miles southeast of Firebaugh, where one of the assistants was married to his cousin.

"He wasn't too concerned when he went to junior college," Joel said. "He knew there was going to be a big-time opportunity for him. He just needed a stage and he got one."

Josh didn't start the first three games at Reedley College, but he came off the bench to run for four touchdowns in the fourth game. After only a couple of starts, his offensive coordinator predicted FBS scholarship offers would soon start rolling in. But the offers never came, even after he'd grown to 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, and sent the mass email to every coach in the country.

"He saw himself as a big-time quarterback, even though he was in this small-time situation in a smaller body," Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. "Not all kids see themselves that way."

We have to assume that most coaches didn't click on the link to Josh's junior college highlights on hudl.com -- a handful of coaches told ESPN that they receive dozens of unsolicited emails from recruits every day. If they had, they would have seen Allen display the arm strength, accuracy and mobility they covet.

On the first play of his highlight reel, he makes a back-shoulder throw from his end zone for a 38-yard gain. On another throw, he looks to his left, rolls to his right and fires a 37-yard strike into the back of the end zone -- just before an outside linebacker viciously hits him near the sideline.

The coaches also would have seen Josh keeping the ball on a zone-read, running up the middle and breaking a tackle for a 40-yard touchdown. On another run, he leaped over a safety trying to tackle him. The highlights were good enough to get Wyoming's coaches interested -- even if they'd gone to Reedley College to scout another potential transfer. And Vigen admits the Cowboys offered a scholarship to Josh only after they lost quarterback prospect Eric Dungey to Syracuse late in the recruiting process.

Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, who had guided the Cowboys to a 4-8 record in his first season in 2014 after winning three FCS national championships at North Dakota State, was the only FBS coach who made the long trek to Allen Ranch.

"He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'We went all around the country and there's only one quarterback we want and that's your son. He's going to be the face of our program,'" Joel recalled.

Before Josh committed to Wyoming, however, he made one last plea to Fresno State's coaches. The Bulldogs had just received a commitment from quarterback Chason Virgil, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound high school prospect from Mesquite, Texas. Virgil was shorter and lighter than Josh was during his senior year at Firebaugh High, when he said the Bulldogs told him he didn't fit the prototype of what they wanted in a quarterback.

After Virgil committed to Fresno State, Josh sent a terse email to an assistant coach: "6-1, 170?"

"Yeah, we got our guy," the assistant responded. "Good luck."

In Allen's first season at Wyoming in 2015, he exited training camp as the No. 2 quarterback, behind Indiana transfer Cameron Coffman and ahead of freshman Nick Smith. Coffman hurt his knee in the season opener, a 24-13 loss to North Dakota, so Allen started against Eastern Michigan the next week. He led the Cowboys on an eight-play, 84-yard touchdown drive on his first series and had them moving again on the second drive.

But then Allen took on a defender at the end of a 24-yard run, breaking his collarbone in seven spots. Surgeons needed eight screws and a plate to repair it, and Allen said he didn't leave his dorm room for three weeks after he was hurt. Wyoming finished 2-10.

"I was devastated," he said.

In hindsight, sitting out the rest of the 2015 season might have been the best thing that could have happened. Vigen said Allen weighed 215 pounds when he arrived at Wyoming, but it was a "bad 215." Allen spent the next several months working to get bigger and faster, and his collarbone was fully healed by the time preseason camp came the next year. It was during preseason practices in 2016 when Bohl and Vigen realized how good Allen might be.

Former San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke was watching a Wyoming practice in late August, before the 49ers played an exhibition game at the Denver Broncos. Baalke and a couple of scouts were there to evaluate tailback Brian Hill and a handful of other seniors, but Allen was the one who made the biggest impression.

"Your quarterback could be in an NFL camp right now," Baalke told Bohl.

It was high praise for a player who had taken only 13 snaps at the FBS level. In the 2016 opener, Allen led the Cowboys to a 40-34 win over Northern Illinois in three overtimes. He scored the winning touchdown on a scramble, eluding three would-be tacklers to find the end zone. Allen finished his junior season with 3,203 passing yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Cowboys upset Boise State 30-28 en route to winning the MWC Mountain Division title, but then they lost four of their last five games.

On the night of Jan. 9, Allen watched Clemson defeat Alabama 35-31 in the College Football Playoff National Championship. He watched the Tigers' thrilling victory in his parents' living room, along with agent Tom Condon and his associates. The next night, while dining at one of his favorite Mexican restaurants, Allen told his parents, siblings, girlfriend (Brittany Williams, a Fresno State cheerleader) and a few other friends that he was turning pro.

But Allen couldn't sleep that night, and when Vigen called the next morning, he couldn't muster the courage to answer.

"I couldn't talk to him and tell him that I was declaring for the draft," Allen said. "At that point, I knew there was something wrong with my decision. I'm a firm believer in your gut being undefeated."

Vigen was driving to the Denver airport to make a recruiting trip to Wisconsin. He called Joel Allen, who told him that Josh was having second thoughts about turning pro. When Vigen's plane landed, he immediately called Bohl, who told him that Josh had changed his mind and was staying in school.

"I asked him, 'Do you want to get drafted or do you want to have a career?'" Bohl said. "We think this next year is going to really give him a better shot to have a long-term career in the NFL. I mean, he barely shaves now."

Bohl wasn't the only one who offered Josh advice. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who played for Bohl at North Dakota State, also reached out to him when he was deciding what to do. Like Josh, Wentz was a late bloomer. College recruiters had largely overlooked him at Century High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, and he didn't start for the Bison until his junior season.

After leading North Dakota State to back-to-back FCS national titles, he was the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NFL draft by the Eagles, the highest selection ever for an FCS player. He ended up starting 16 games as a rookie, throwing for 3,782 yards with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Besides their small-town upbringing and the fact they played in a pro-style offense under Bohl, there are obvious physical similarities. While Vigen says Wentz is "off the charts" when it comes to maturity and other intangibles, he says Josh might be more physically talented.

Wentz's advice to Allen was simple: Make sure you're ready for the NFL.

"He seems like a bright kid with a bright future," Wentz said. "I know he has a lot of talent and people are really high on him."

One thing that Wentz said especially struck a chord with Josh: "He told me that I'd be stepping into a locker room full of 35-year-old men with families and children, who would be depending on me to win games and help secure their jobs."

For now, Josh has one more appearance on a smaller stage. Over the next four months NFL teams and fans will learn just about everything there is to know about him.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I think that kids who are at smaller schools or don't have offers from big schools can look at my story and continue to work hard. I preach to them that it doesn't matter where you come from, it matters how you play and how you apply yourself. If you want something, go get it."