Like most 20-year-old guys, Keenan Allen gets distracted by girls.
Allen is sitting in a golf cart outside Memorial Stadium, his feet up, his arm draped around the driver’s seat.
On Saturday, he’ll catch passes, break records and make the kind of jaw-dropping plays that SportsCenter replays deep into the night.
But right now, he’s still just a kid, one who stops mid-sentence as two girls walk by. He glances over at them and laughs sheepishly.
It’s good to be Keenan Allen.
He can show up to postgame interviews with his headphones on, and he can call himself the best wide receiver in the country. Because he is not only a silly college student but also one of the best athletes in the nation.
“Just having a football in my hands, I feel like I can do anything,” Allen says.
A soon-to-be NFL star, Allen is the face of Cal athletics, for now.
Allen could have been at Alabama.
The nation’s No. 5 overall high school prospect, Allen passed up the chance to potentially win multiple national championships when he de-committed from Alabama so he could team up with his half-brother Zach Maynard, who was never even expected to start at Cal.
But Allen is not one to wonder. He makes nothing of it. When the Crimson Tide won the title last year, he says he just laughed. He had nothing to say.
“I don’t do the, ‘What ifs,’” he says. “It’s not all about championships.”
Seeing as Cal has gone 13-17 since his freshman year — while Alabama is 26-4 — it’s only natural that Allen’s college years are defined by qualitative measures rather than wins and losses. It’s about getting to next level, he says, and Cal is the best place for that. In Berkeley, he is both maturing into an adult and progressing as a football player.
He is serious when talking about the challenges of being on his own, paying rent, organizing his time.
“You go through so many things, trials and tribulations here,” Allen says. “So I think it just gets us ready to be a man.”
That’s not to say Allen doesn’t still have time to act like a kid.
There are the times he acts silly, like his nonstop singing. His vocal arrangements are not limited to the shower. “Everywhere we go, he just starts singing,” says fellow receiver Chris Harper. Allen even claims to sing Chris Brown in his head when he plays.
Then there are the times he acts foolish, like when he refuses to eat breakfast.
In the 2012 season opener against Nevada, Allen led the Bears with six receptions for 67 yards, a miraculous performance considering it was on an empty stomach.
“I had no energy the whole game,” he says. “My legs were dead.”
He just doesn’t like breakfast. He wakes up with his stomach hurting and has no appetite. He has eaten breakfast before games since then.
But if he was able to attain success without eating breakfast, there seems no reason to stop him. Let Keenan be Keenan — off and on the field, where his self-esteem is off the charts.
“Any time (Zach) doesn’t throw me the ball and it’s an incomplete pass, I tell him, ‘Hey, Zach, throw me the ball. I’m open, dude,’” Allen says. “And I don’t know if I’m open, I just feel like I’m open.”
He believes that he will always make the play, that he will always succeed. He has such an innate confidence in himself that he has no qualms with denigrating USC’s tandem of All-Americans Robert Woods and Marqise Lee as second-class receivers.
“They’re good, but I don’t see a comparison,” Allen says. “I feel like nobody can play with me.”
Allen considers himself to be in his very own tier at the top. Yet teammates see him as not cocky but as a role model. When the receivers watch game tape, they always zero in on No. 21.
“I watch Keenan, I think, more so than I watch myself,” says freshman receiver Bryce Treggs.
Allen is their leader, their mentor, their standard bearer. He may brag, but he does so with a smile on his face and means no offense by it.
And he backs up his statements with his play on the field.
Maybe it was his double reverse touchdown run in week one or his punt return for a touchdown the following week. Maybe it’s simply how he consistently turns four-yard curls into first downs even when four defenders swarming him.
Perhaps the best example was this past Saturday. In the fourth quarter he snagged a pass heading out of the end zone and slid his right foot inbounds. The refs ruled it a touchdown.
What made the play so significant was not that it brought the Bears to within three. It was the fact that Allen had missed most of the second and third quarters with a stomach illness that had him vomiting on the sideline.
Harper compares the performance to Michael Jordan’s infamous flu game. Tedford just shakes it off as if Allen’s effort was nothing out of the ordinary.
“It says he’s a true competitor, which we all know,” Tedford says. “That’s nothing new … Keenan’s as good a football player as there is.”
Through two and a half seasons in Berkeley, Allen has compiled an impressive resume: Freshman single-season receptions records in 2010, second-most single-season catches and receiving yards in 2011.
He’s caught a pass in 29 consecutive games, a streak that could leave him tied for first place by season’s end. Should he catch 26 more — a likely feat with seven games left on the schedule — he’ll be Cal’s all-time leader in receptions
Of course, Allen wants that prize. But he’s not about to stay another year to seize first place in receiving yards too, even if that might cement his status as the greatest receiver in program history.
“I mean, I probably could (stay and break the record),” he says, “But chancing it would be another thing.”
One fluke accident, and his dream of being an NFL star could never be realized. On draft boards, he is a unanimous first-round pick. CBS Sports has him at No. 8, SI.com at 13. These forecasts mean Allen has all but decided to forgo his senior year and enter the 2013 NFL draft.
“If I’m projected to go first round, then I’m probably liable to leave,” he says.
There is an addendum: He doesn’t necessarily want to leave. But if he’s a first-round projection, it’ll probably be the right decision.
Because Allen is always thinking about the future. It’s just not completely Cal-centric.
“I’m not gonna lie, my goal was to be the best that’s ever played at Cal,” Allen says. “My legacy’s gonna be the best person to play in the NFL.”
While Allen might not have meant to differentiate his goal and his legacy, sometimes what comes out is more meaningful than what was intended. He’s not a cerebral person by any means — he speaks from the heart.
Regardless of who he is off the field, Keenan Allen might just be Cal’s greatest receiver ever when he leaves, even if it’s this spring.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]