Wyoming’s 2016 was almost a breakthrough season for the Craig Bohl era. The Cowboys went 8-6 and played in the Mountain West Championship game, which they lost by only three points, and then played BYU in a bowl game which they lost by only three points. It was only year three in Bohl’s system, which was a tad early for them to advance this far on their journey towards the North Dakota State-style power game he intended to install.
I spoke with Bohl back when he took the Wyoming job and it was clear that transforming Wyoming from a struggling mid-major spread program to a physically dominant smashmouth team was something he viewed as a long-term plan.
Yet in one sense, 2016 was a breakthrough season and not simply because Wyoming was finally competitive in their new identity but because the 2016 season put their QB Josh Allen on the map and thus Craig Bohl and Wyoming by association.
Allen’s first season was solid but not spectacular, he had an early hiccup against Nebraska when he threw five interceptions and he threw two more in each of their postseason contests against San Diego State and BYU:
Despite stats that suggest breakthrough is still in the future, Allen’s combination of size, arm strength, and overall athleticism really made an impression on NFL scouts. What’s more, it occurred simultaneously to an impressive rookie season from Carson Wentz, another large, athletic player that Bohl recruited and helped develop in his system. In the same way that all Air Raid QBs fail to get the benefit of the doubt now due to the struggles of past Air Raid QBs to break through in the NFL, QBs from the Wyoming/ND State programs can now be seen as a “potential Carson Wentz.”
Like Carson Wentz, Allen hasn’t been on the typical track to QB stardom.
College QB development
The NFL has two major difficulties with QB development, one is that they don’t own the process of player development. Instead our school system is in charge of developing this trade much like every other one. College and high school coaches’ compensation is related to how much they win and the correlation between successfully developing NFL players and winning titles isn’t exact, particularly at QB.
Programs like Ohio State, Alabama, or Clemson aren’t necessarily designing their offensive systems to develop the kinds of QBs the NFL needs to execute precision passing attacks. Most major programs focus on the run game because it’s more stable from year to year.
For a school like Wyoming, that could potentially create a market inefficiency in drawing top QB talent if they can build a claim to fame as a program that finds and develops the kinds of signal-callers the NFL is looking for. Of course, being able to find and develop QBs is already a major college efficiency. The top QB prospects in the 2016 NFL draft shared similar stories to Josh Allen, they were big, talented, and yet largely overlooked coming out of high school.
The reason he was overlooked was that he skipped out on the professional world’s burgeoning process of QB development in favor of the traditional route. That is to say, he skipped out on 7-on-7 teams and camp circuits that aim to supplement the school system by teaching NFL passing concepts and progressions in favor of pitching in baseball and playing point guard for his high school basketball team.
People also like to note that he was “only” 6-3, 180 as a high school senior and not the 6-5, 220 pound monster he is today but if he’d been in the camp circuits scouts and recruiters would have noticed him and wouldn’t have been so dumb to miss out on the possibility that his frame would fill out in college strength and conditioning. He wasn’t exactly another Aaron Rodgers, playing at 5-10, 165 as a high school senior before his final growth spurt.
Because he was getting a broad, liberal sports education rather than “going to trade school” and focusing exclusively on football, Allen was basically hiding in plain sight in one of the most QB-rich regions in the world (Fresno, CA).
Interestingly, this might mean that the most talented QBs of the 2017 and 2018 NFL draft are both guys that eschewed part-time trade school in favor of liberal sports education in high school. Pat Mahomes and Josh Allen were both multi-sport stars that clearly took what they learned on the diamond or the hardwood and applied it to the gridiron.
Allen spent his first college season at a JUCO where Craig Bohl found him and sold him and his family on NFL possibilities if he agreed to come to Wyoming. They successfully fended off Eastern Michigan for his services and he won the starting job immediately. Then he was injured early in his first game and the outbreak was delayed for a year. In 2016 everyone else finally got to see what had Bohl so excited about his newest found treasure.
Josh Allen vs a pro-style defense
Kalani Sitake is a part of an effective and growing coaching tree rooted in Utah which specializes in attacking QBs with blitzes that can be a bear to recognize and pick up yet still leave the defense with six or seven defenders in coverage.
That was the challenge facing Allen when Wyoming drew BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl, that and inclement weather, which combined to hold him to 207 passing yards on 32 attempts (6.5 ypa), with two TDs, two INTs, one sack, but 38 rushing yards on six carries. If Allen were a bit more comfortable in the QB power run game that might have been a trump card to give Wyoming the victory rather than a 24-21 defeat.
That said, the game really turned on two major factors. The first was BYU’s OL wearing down the Wyoming D, which is still a ways away from the North Dakota State standard, and putting RB Jamal Williams at 210 yards on 21 carries. On this carry you can see how worn out down Cowboy front is by how effectively the Cougar OL reach blocks outside zone:
When the backside guard is reaching the nose while the play side guard and center are both connecting with linebackers, you’re in for a bad day of run defense.
Incidentally, this OL returns largely intact for BYU next season so don’t be shocked if they are shockingly effective at replacing Jamal Williams.
The other factor that took down Allen’s Cowboys were the results of the last two Wyoming plays that preceded the TD drive clipped above. The first was this one, an Allen scramble that ended violently:
That play cost the Cougars their starting strong safety, but it might have cost the Cougars a bit more. Allen looked shockingly alright immediately after taking that shot, but on their next play this happened:
That’s a rather careless pick and it’s hard not to notice that it occurred pretty soon after taking a helmet to the face and bouncing the back of his head off the ground. Allen went on to lead the Cowboys to a comeback after this but this exchange combined with BYU’s run game proficiency pretty much doomed Wyoming.
Afterwards Allen made a few key throws that still nearly fueled a Cowboy comeback. First he punctuated a run-heavy drive with this throw in the end zone, victimizing BYU’s replacement strong safety:
The design here is rather effective as it puts a lot of stress on BYU’s free safety. They have the solo side receiver, Jake Maulhardt, running a fade route. At 6-6, 230, Maulhardt is a big target that’s hard to handle in the red zone although BYU’s boundary corner totally locks him up here. BYU’s free safety drifts there with Allen’s eyes and then can’t help against the Cowboy’s other top target Tanner Gentry running a dig route on a rather lost strong safety.
It’s only a three-man rush but a nice throw and indicative of Allen’s vision and accuracy.
The next Wyoming drive was an absolute masterpiece of quarterbacking. Allen demonstrated a number of elite skills in the face of BYU’s high caliber pass rush and beat the Cougars in about every way you might wish for from your starting quarterback.
On this play BYU brought a Narduzzi-style zone blitz with three deep defenders, two “hot” route rats underneath, and six pass-rushers:
The flare motion by the RB is ideal for threatening that field corner and Allen reads his response quickly before firing a perfect ball to Tanner Gentry in between the deep safety and the conflicted cornerback. He knows pressure is coming (though he has time) but he knows exactly what to look for and easily puts the ball on target.
Shortly after that success, Allen found himself facing third and 20 thanks to sack and he then demonstrated the kind of pocket presence, power, and arm strength that really draws in NFL scouts:
He treats oncoming Corbin Kaufusi, a 6’9” 285 pound monster, as a mere annoyance while firing a perfect strike to the sticks from an off-balance position. He finished the drive with this little number on a third and four:
That kind of improvisation is very difficult for college or pro defenses to handle but it’s made especially lethal by Allen’s running ability and the ease with which he can throw accurate balls down the field while on the move.
The game eventually ended when he took a misguided attempt to throw across his body into BYU’s cover 2 and was picked but there was a lot in this game that portends a very bright future for Allen both at Wyoming and at the next level.
The 2017 Josh Allen Cowboys
Wyoming’s offensive line came together quite nicely by the end of the year and the unit you can see holding up solidly in the clips above included underclassmen at four positions, including both tackle spots. Nearly that entire group returns to help keep Allen upright as he searches for new targets with Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt both moving on.
The defense is also returning a lot of young players that were pushed around in 2016 but they’re probably close to breakthrough as well if their young DL can make a leap.
They open with Iowa in Iowa City next season before taking on their usual Mountain West slate which includes facing some challenging defenses on the road in Boise State and Utah State. Allen’s main challenge that could portend the most about his NFL future will be to lead his new targets this offseason to develop the skills necessary to allow them to make another leap on offense and win their league.
It takes a well-rounded education to be an NFL QB and Allen got his the traditional way. I suspect Allen learned a lot from playing baseball and basketball on how to throw from different angles, set a quick base, and how to process things unfolding in live action and get the ball to teammates in the right spots. If he also learned how to lead a team and make his teammates better off the field then he can be, and probably should be, one of the top picks in the 2018 draft.