Two-star to potential superstar: Josh Allen wants to be next Khalil Mack

Why Josh Allen is the best linebacker in the draft (1:17)

Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen took his game to another level this past season, leading the SEC with 17 sacks and proving he's worth a top-five pick in the NFL draft. (1:17)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Someone is missing.

The Kentucky Wildcats' pro day is underway in Nutter Field House, where 15 NFL hopefuls are running, jumping and short-shuttling for an army of stopwatch-wielding men who look as if they jumped off the pages of "team store" catalogs. Every team is represented as they evaluate the draft-eligible players from Kentucky's winningest team in 40 years (10-3 overall), but the best of those players is a spectator. He's off to the side, mingling with onlookers, chatting with scouts and doing the dad thing.

On this day, linebacker Josh Allen's only physical activity is chasing around his 14-month-old son, Wesley, who has a deceptively quick first step. Papa Allen has decided not to perform with his teammates -- he's standing on his NFL scouting combine workout in Indianapolis -- and there's something wonderfully ironic about that.

For nearly eight years, Allen tried to get football people to recognize his potential. He was ignored by college coaches, overlooked by recruiting services and bullied by teammates early on in high school. Heck, he wasn't even the best athlete in his own family. He was so far removed from the recruiting radar that it took a fortuitous series of events to land an 11th-hour scholarship to Kentucky, the only FBS school that showed serious interest. Now, with more than 50 NFL talent evaluators on his campus, Allen is in an enviable position:

He can afford to chill on pro day.

Once an afterthought -- only a two-star recruit in high school -- Allen has made himself into a projected top-three pick in the draft (April 25-27, ESPN).

Even though he's taking a day off, he vows to never rest. He treats that two-star designation as a scarlet letter, using it as motivation in a most public way: It appears in his Twitter and Instagram bios.

"It fuels him, sort of the same way Tom Brady was drafted 199th and how that drives him," Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White says at the pro day, watching Allen work the room like the mayor of Lexington. "At some point, it's not the main factor, but it's still there."

How could it not be?

Allen is a feel-good story because of his journey. He wasn't a coddled high school recruit who saw college as a three-year layover on the way to NFL riches. He spent four years at Kentucky -- look, an actual senior! -- and established a career arc that tantalizes NFL teams. He didn't start playing defense until his senior year at Montclair High School in New Jersey, so the belief among talent evaluators is he hasn't reached his ceiling.

He's a 6-foot-5, 259-pound pass-rusher with an 81-inch wingspan, crazy production (31.5 career sacks) and impressive athleticism. His 40-yard dash time (4.63 seconds) and 10-yard split (1.61) at the combine are nearly identical to those of Chicago Bears star Khalil Mack, who posted a 4.65 40 time and 1.64 split when he came out of the University at Buffalo in 2014. Actually, there are a few parallels between Allen and Mack, a former two-star recruit who blossomed into a megastar. Some believe Allen has the ability to be Mack 2.0.

"He's a better athlete than Mack," says one NFC defensive coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think Mack was stronger at this stage of his career, but I can see some similarities. [Allen's] upside is tremendous."

Allen has a deep respect for Mack, built on his admiration for how he proved so many people wrong along the way. Mack switched sports in high school, dropping basketball, so he got a late start and didn't generate much football buzz in the talent-fertile state of Florida. He wound up at Buffalo, which, in a side note, offered Allen the opportunity to walk on -- not even a scholarship.

The two players are represented by the same agent, Joel Segal, so they have had multiple phone conversations. Allen isn't shy about expressing his career goal: He wants to be the next Mack, even better.

"That's a goal of mine," he says. "He's a great player, and I also want to be a great player. I want to learn from him. I also want to be my own player. At the end of the day, I want to make my own legacy. He's already solidified himself as one of the best players ever, I believe. When my time comes in the NFL, when my moment happens, I hope it can be a breakout one."

Like Mack, Allen was overshadowed in high school by big names. In his area of New Jersey, the Class of 2015 produced future pros Jabrill Peppers, Quenton Nelson, David Njoku and Mike Gesicki. Allen led New Jersey with 22.5 sacks and played on a state championship team, yet the only Division I offer came from nearby Monmouth University, an FCS school in West Long Branch, New Jersey. He gave a commitment to the Hawks, thinking they were his only shot.

How in a world of YouTube highlights and countless recruiting websites can a future star go unnoticed? Well, there is a backstory.

As a middle schooler in Montclair, Allen had speech therapy to combat a childhood stutter and was later diagnosed with ADHD. But he felt isolated and desired a change of scenery. He left Montclair to live with an aunt and uncle in Abbeville, Alabama, where he joined the freshman football team. It nearly broke him. Only a 130-pound receiver, he was body-slammed in his first practice and mocked by teammates in the locker room, quitting the team.

He returned, then quit again.

Then returned. And quit again.

He came back for good, though, and, by his junior year, Allen -- long and smooth -- was an all-state receiver. He decided to return to Montclair for his senior year, a great idea except he fell off the recruiting map. The website 247Sports tabbed him a two-star recruit, ranking him 2,121st in the nation. Montclair coach John Fiore made him a two-way player, introducing him to defensive end. It was akin to giving Mike Trout his first baseball bat; it was natural. Allen started to do amazing things on the field, like the time against perennial power St. Joseph's when he ran down the star running back on a sweep.

Fiore knew what he had in Allen, a diamond in the rough, but he couldn't persuade any of the big schools to recruit him. He implored Rutgers to take a look, but the New Jersey state school wasn't interested.

"Some people just couldn't see the potential in him," Fiore says. "Kentucky did, and they won big. I told Rutgers, 'You guys are going to look foolish when he's drafted in the first round.'"

Allen was prepared to sign with Monmouth, but one phone call led to another, which led to a life-changing decision.

It started with Jim Matsakis, the West Orange (New Jersey) High School coach. His team had faced Allen, and he, too, marveled at his untapped potential. Matsakis notified his brother, Louie, a member of the Kentucky coaching staff. Louie alerted D.J. Eliot, the outside linebackers coach. He went online and pulled up Allen's video. He was intrigued.

"You could tell he was really athletic," Eliot says.

Eliot called defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley, who was recruiting in the Washington, D.C., area. Eliot told him to get up to New Jersey to meet Allen, pronto. If he's at least 6-4, Eliot instructed, book him immediately on a flight to Lexington for a campus visit.

Allen passed the eyeball test. In fact, Ansley texted a photo of himself standing next to Allen, just to show the disbelieving eyes in Lexington it wasn't fantasy football. Fate was working for both sides. Because a couple of Kentucky's linebacker recruits had decommitted, the Wildcats had the need -- and the scholarship -- to make Allen happy. He took a weekend trip to campus and, three days later, he signed.

A couple of weeks into summer camp, Eliot called Fiore and thanked him profusely for sending Josh his way.

"The thing about Josh is, he didn't have much time in his high school career to have college coaches tell him how great he was," says Eliot, now the defensive coordinator at Kansas. "I really think that helped him. It gave him something to prove."

Josh wasn't the first member of the Allen family to pursue a professional sports dream in the state of Kentucky. His sister, Myisha Hines-Allen, was a star basketball player at Louisville and was drafted in 2018 by the WNBA's Washington Mystics.

In the Allen family, sports rule. Two other sisters, LaTorri and Kyra Hines-Allen, also played college basketball -- at Towson and Cheyney, respectively. Their uncle, Gregory Hines, was a legendary player at Hampton University, where he was known as "Dunkin Hines." At 6-9, he was a fifth-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1983 and, although he never made it in the NBA, he played professionally for 12 years.

Josh admitted it was "stressful" growing up in such a competitive environment, trying to live up to a standard that was set by the older generation. His grandfather, Morris Hines, was known as a baller on the basketball court in his day.

"It all started with my grandparents and their passion for sports," Myisha writes in an email from Serbia, where she is playing professionally during the WNBA offseason. "My grandfather had a saying: 'Cut them deep and let them bleed.' And I feel like everyone in my family went by that when they stepped on the court or the field. When we set our eyes on something, we continue to fight for it until it is ours. And that is exactly what Josh is doing right now and I cannot be more proud of him."

As a freshman, Allen was a 6-5, 205-pound backup for the Wildcats. He got bigger and better, recording seven sacks as a sophomore and seven as a junior. As a senior, he blew up the SEC, finishing with 17 sacks (second in the nation). He pressured the quarterback on 25 percent of his pass rushes, easily the best rate in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He was first-team All-America and collected every major defensive award, capping a career that no one imagined -- except him.

Working with Kentucky's White, a former Indianapolis Colts assistant, Allen added some tools to his toolbox, as he likes to say. He learned how to set up his pass-rushing moves while incorporating a power element into his game. The objective, White says, was "so he can have some of those physical, bloody rushes, which you need to keep tackles off guard to open up the outside edge."

It worked, as Allen was held without a sack in only two of nine SEC games in 2018. His signature moment was a game-saving strip sack against Florida, preserving Kentucky's first win against the Gators in 31 years. It came after he had spent time in the locker room receiving an IV for cramps.

"He has everything it takes," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. says. "He has the right attitude. He improved a lot. He finished; he closed out plays. He was a finisher this year more so than he ever had been. Teams didn't have an answer for him, and they knew who they were targeting. They knew going in who they had to block and they still couldn't block Josh Allen."

Allen considered the NFL draft after his junior season, but he announced his intentions to stay in school only five days after his now-fiancée, Kaitlyn Brooke, gave birth to Wesley. At the time, he was projected as a third-round pick by one AFC personnel director. The money would have been nice, especially with a newborn, but he decided to bet on himself.

"I had a meeting with coach [Mark] Stoops, and he said, 'Do you want to make money right now, or do you want to make life-changing money -- generational money -- that would stick with [you until you're] a retired billionaire?'" says Allen, recalling his conversation with the Kentucky head coach.

If he's drafted by the New York Jets, who train only 14 miles from his hometown, Allen will receive a fully guaranteed contract for more than $30 million as the No. 3 pick. Yes, that is life-changing money, but that is only part of his motivation. Those close to him say his young son is a driving force. There is also that slight from four years ago, when he got lost in the netherworld of college recruiting and came up three stars short of what he is now -- an elite prospect.

"I keep that as a chip on my shoulder," Allen says. "It's extra motivation, being overlooked. I've always been overlooked. I think I still am for the most part, but my talents are now being looked upon as one of the top players in the country, which I always felt I was.

"I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing this for other guys getting overlooked who should be highly recruited. If I can do it, anybody can do it. It you put the work in, it could change."